He suggested I go to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings, but I destroyed our relationship instead. It was easier.
This book is for the wankers, the loners, the weirdos, the perverts, the outcasts, the bullied, the flawed, the awkward, the shunned, and the shamed.
This guy I kind of know named Clay, who has a neck tattoo and sells arty photographs to tourists, is on top of me and he’s not wearing a condom. I don’t care. I’m completely sober. He’s not.
I’m not sure what time it is. It is so dark outside that I can barely see Clay’s neck tattoo, his condomless dick, or his mouth full of crooked teeth. I hear him grunting; I feel his body’s weight, his sixfoot-eight frame on my five-foot-two, and I know he’s almost finished. I’m too tired to have an orgasm, so I wait for the inevitable end.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy this. Enjoy is not big enough a word. I have come to crave these nights with Clay.
Sometimes he calls during the day and we make plans to go out for drinks, never dinner, because what would we talk about? But then I don’t hear from him until the middle of the night, when he’s drunk or high and knocking at my front door. I don’t care. I can’t even picture him in a bar ordering drinks, sliding dollar bills over to the bartender, or making conversation with me fully clothed. It’s true that I met him in a bar many months before, so I must have seen these things, but I was so drunk and heartbroken from my last breakup that I’m not sure exactly how that night went and what things he said to get me to swallow his cum.
He called me in the morning, and even though we made plans that I knew we wouldn’t keep, I got dressed anyway and put on my mascara and took a small swig of the vodka I keep in the freezer to prepare myself for an awkward date, imagining the questions we’ll trudge through out of politeness until the drinks we’ve ordered make us courageous enough to suggest the next move, to someone’s bed, likely mine.
After the time we’d chosen to meet had long passed, I wiped off my makeup, slipped on my pajamas, and fell asleep. Sometimes he shows up in the middle of the night; sometimes he doesn’t. Either way I won’t get another call for a few days, or a week, until he’s bored and horny and we play this game again.
Tonight when I heard him knocking I woke up straightaway, but I stayed in bed a little longer than usual. For a fleeting moment I considered that letting him in might not be the best thing for me, which isn’t so much of an aha! moment, but the usual common sense that I choose to ignore. I thought about the sensation of his hips against mine; his heavy breath on my neck; the fullness that sex gives me, like having feasted on a hearty meal; but I also thought about the immediate emptiness that follows my nights with him or men like him.
I weighed the options like a sensible person. I did the expected. I took off my pajamas, opened the door naked, and led him back to my bedroom.
He turns me over, which is his favorite way to finish. My eyes, fully adjusted to the darkness now, focus on the dent forming between my headboard and the wall. I think about spackling. Then I see my reflection just above that, in the large mirror with a rattan frame that hangs above the bed.
I hold eye contact with myself while he fucks me, slipping into some sort of twisted meditation. I’m someone else, a queen or a goddess. He is just some lowly subject I use for fun. There are guards in armor waiting outside my door and maidens who will bathe me and rub me with sweet-smelling oils before putting me to bed.
But when Clay pulls out, he flips my body back over like a rag doll and comes all over my tits and stomach so a pool forms in my belly button and rolls out onto the bedspread.
Afterward, we lie there, our elbows touching. I am less sleepy than I was when I opened the door, so the awkwardness sets in fast. He asks how my day was, and then I wait in desperate anticipation for the Call you tomorrow or See you in a few days, which may or may not be true. I don’t care. I dread the nights when he tries at intimacy, holds me in the sweaty crock of his arm for a few minutes before he retreats to the farthest corner of the bed to sleep while I lie there for hours, unable to sleep beside a stranger.
Finally he feeds me his lines and gets dressed and goes, and I give myself two orgasms in the wet spot of the bed. Once, to a three-minute clip of a teenage cheerleader fucking her stepdad on the kitchen counter while her mom showers upstairs, and then again to the thought of what a miserable slut I am to allow a guy like Clay to use me for sex.
There’s nothing unique about this singular moment in bed with Clay. I can reach into my arsenal of memories and easily pick out another story just like it, sometimes not even including a man. Because what I got from Clay was more than just his penis inside of me. What I got was an elaborate mix of shame and sexual excitement I had come to depend on since I was twelve years old. And my methods of getting this only became darker and more intense so that it wreaked havoc on all aspects of my life until I became a shell of a person, isolated, on a path to certain destruction.
With Clay gone and my two orgasms over, I steep in the afterglow of having gotten what I needed.
And, by now, I’m too exhausted to consider answering the overwhelming question echoing inside of me, where he and the cheerleader and the stepdad just were.
Why am I doing this?
What I block out of my mind, because it doesn’t fit the sad story I’m devising in my head, is that I’m using Clay too. He’s probably caught up in the same emptiness I am, desperately filling it with any warm body available. For what little conversation we have, Clay and I are actually quite similar, and we could probably have a genuine connection if we talked about these things. But we don’t talk about these things because, well, it isn’t sexy. I’d rather stick with the one thing that always manages to get me off, I’m bad, bad, bad.
THE SAME ADDICT
My favorite porn scene of all time involves two sweaty women, fifty horny men, a warehouse, a harness, a hair dryer, and a taxicab. You can put it all together in a dozen different ways and I bet you still can’t imagine just how revolting the scene actually is.
Revolting. I’ve been using this word and many adjectives like it to describe the things that have brought me to orgasm for more than two decades. I’m not just referring to porn scenes either. I’m also referring to those scenes from my own life, costarring semiconscious men in dark bedrooms and sex workers in cheaply rented rooms, where I prioritized the satisfaction of sexual release over everything else screaming inside of me, Please stop.
Revolting: that summer after college when, after downing too many shots of tequila at a party, I stripped naked and took a bubble bath in front of a group of men.
Disgusting: slipping a few twenty dollar bills to a woman who called me “baby” on the other side of a semen stained pane of glass at a Times Square peep show.
Sickening: letting daylight dissipate and with it all my plans and obligations for the day because l’d rather stay in bed with high definition clips of naughty secretaries, busty nurses, incestuous cheerleaders, drunk frat party girls, and sad Thai hookers.
I was thirty years old when I watched Steve McQueen’s provocative film Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a New Yorker whose sex addiction leads him to reject intimacy and seek fulfillment through sex with prostitutes and extensive porn watching.
There was something familiar in his story. But that wouldn’t be a turning point for me. Not yet. It was more like an aura or a premonition, because over the next few years I would make many of the same mistakes I had made before, and I would make some new and more painful mistakes too, but right beside those mistakes there would be the hint of a growing awareness that can only come when you are in the midst of great change.
In 2008, three years before Shame was released, I was living in New York City with a man a decade older than me. We were engaged. He was a recovering alcoholic and went to meetings daily, sometimes twice a day, and I began to suspect that the primary reason for this frequency was to get away from me. And why wouldn’t he want to get away? At that time in life I was racked with insecurity and relentlessly jealous. On top of that I was out of work and intimidated by his successful career as a filmmaker. He paid for everything, which seemed to make both of us increasingly uncomfortable over time. When I began to question his whereabouts and raid his journals for evidence of his presumed infidelities, he began to resent me. Eventually we fell apart. But one of the things I remember most vividly about our breakdown was his accusation that I was a sex addict.
“You’re just saying that because you don’t fuck me enough!” was all I could say, though I knew then, and I had known for a long time, that I did have a problem with sex. I just didn’t know what to do about it.
He suggested I go to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings, but I destroyed our relationship instead. It was easier.
I wouldn’t go to SLAA for another five years, and when I did, I still wasn’t sure that l belonged there. When people talked about the emptiness that came when they watched porn and how isolated they felt, I shifted in my seat and held my breath, feeling that same sense of recognition I had watching Shame. Maybe these are my people, I thought. But when an attractive and uneasy woman admitted to picking up a “few new STDs” at her latest orgy, I thought, Well, I’m not that bad. And I judged her and judged them and went home and masturbated.
At thirty years old, at twenty-four, even at twelve, it was impossible for me to think about sexual pleasure without immediately feeling shame. I felt bad about the type of porn I watched. I felt bad sleeping with people I didn’t like. I felt bad because of the thoughts I feasted on when l was having sex with people genuinely loved.
For as far back as I can remember this is just the way it was. My sexual habits were sick and shameful. My thoughts were sick and shameful. I was sick and shameful.
But nothing would stop me from getting off. Even though I had a suspicion for a long time that this combination of pleasure and shame probably wasn’t good for me, the satisfaction I felt in acting out was worth it.
That’s why I was willing to do things like stick it out for six months with an alcoholic bartender even when he’d repeatedly piss the bed and forget to hide other women’s clothes in his apartment. I didn’t want to lose the easy, consistent access to sex and affection that being in a relationship guaranteed.
I would break plans with people who needed me, family members, friends, or not make plans at all, because I didn’t want to miss out on any potential opportunity to have sex.
In Barcelona, suffering from what felt like the worst bout of strep throat I’ve ever had (which turned out to be mono), I chose to go home with the fifth guy in the space of a few weeks. It was the only thing I could do to stop thinking about the fact that I had just ruined a three-year relationship with the man I dated after the filmmaker, someone I truly loved and felt loved by, over a hand job with a Colombian man on vacation.
Instead of attempting to repair the damage, I slept with a French waiter who fucked me so hard I bled on his bed as if I were a virgin.
And then another French waiter, who took me to his friend’s house instead of his own because his wife was there.
And then a Spanish guy, a German guy, and another Spanish guy. And I did it with the last one without a condom because who really cared at that point? Not him. Not me. I couldn’t even moan or speak to him my throat was so flared up.
In those few weeks, it didn’t matter who approached me. All that mattered was that I was approached. I didn’t need an aphrodisiac-infused dinner, a long conversation spent bonding over our favorite writers of the twentieth century, or a glimmer of a potential future. All I needed was an invitation.
Don’t get me wrong: judging someone based on the number of people they’ve slept with is absurd, and I know there are plenty of healthy, intelligent, and honorable men and women with strong sexual appetites. In some moments, with some partners, “sexually liberated” was exactly what I felt. But those moments were rare.
I’m much more familiar with the sad, anxious mess of a girl alone in her dark bedroom, hot laptop balanced on her chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.
I’m far too familiar with the girl who can’t keep her hands from shaking or her throat from clenching, the girl who is just waiting for an invitation. Waiting for someone to show her some interest so she can put the loneliness away for a few hours and find some release.
Sometimes I wonder, if there had been more research and more discussion about sexual addiction in women, would I have changed my behavior? Had there been more available examples of vulnerable, open, honest women sharing their journeys, would I have been more willing to embrace the possibility that I wasn’t alone and unfixable? It’s hard to know for sure.
What I do know is that isolation is damaging. Silence’ is damaging. And when you are isolated and silenced, all sorts of ideas, however twisted they may seem, can begin to seem real because they aren’t ever dealt with properly. I’ll also admit that, while my misery was very real to me for a long time, I was willing to suffer the repercussions because the gratification of acting out was too good and l was hooked on a culture of chaos.
My adolescent years were convoluted with ideas that chaos was good, that depression meant you were a creative person. My heroes were Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Nancy Spungen. Sylvia fucking Plath. Little seemed cooler than Van Gogh cutting off his ear, than Virginia Woolf drowning herself. I romanticized brokenness as a means of resisting change, isolating myself, drinking too much, throwing tantrums, and playing Russian roulette with various dicks to make a point that I just didn’t fucking care. I was a mess. I was interesting.
I filled journals with my depressed thoughts about my behavior, my loneliness, the hole I felt growing bigger inside myself, but I made no efforts to stop. If anything, all the brooding I did only intensified my habits, entrenched them. I would do everything I could to tear a relationship apart if the flip side meant having to deal with any real problem.
What began with harmless masturbation at twelve quickly became something more sinister. I wonder now if my parents suspected what I was up to all those hours behind closed doors with my computer. If they could tell by my exhaustion and dazed look that I had just binged for hours. But they never hinted at knowing. Do any parents confront their children about this?
When I was living at home I’d take my laptop to my closet because I was afraid someone would bust through the lock on the door and catch me, or see me through the window that faced the street, even though I had blackout curtains and knew that was impossible.
Porn made me paranoid, but it was free and accessible and always effective. From watching softcore on cable TV at twelve, to downloading photos at a snail’s pace on AOL at fourteen, to tuning in to streaming sites with broadband forever after, my habit became more immediate, more intense, and harder to escape.
But what was I trying to escape? I had lived a pretty normal life, I thought. I had good parents who loved me the best they could, and I’d suffered no sexually traumatic events. Was I fundamentally flawed? This question led me, over the years, to a frantic investigation of my childhood journals, desperately trying to uncover some repressed sexual trauma that I could not find. I threw my money at hypnotherapy, past-life regression, and other alternative treatments to find the missing link, eyeing my brother, my cousins, my uncles, my father, thinking, Which one of you did it? Which one of you made me this way? But when no such traumatic event could be found, the only thing left was that same unanswered emptiness and the conviction that I was inherently bad.
It wasn’t until my early thirties when I finally started to realize that this problem wasn’t just ruining my romantic relationships but all of my relationships, most notably, my relationship with myself. Because I had failed to examine all the reasons I had wanted to escape in the first place, the roots of my shame, I never developed the basic skill we all need to handle life’s twists and turns. how to cope.
THE GOOD GIRL
I grew up in the early eighties in Montebello, California, Southeast LA, where teenage pregnancy was on the rise and every Mexican restaurant claimed to have the best tacos north of the border. Living rooms were adorned with framed pictures of Jesus or the Virgin, and everyone believed in heaven and hell, not as abstract ideas, but as very real places. It was the kind of place where you could pick up your holy candles with your milk and bread at the local supermarket and you always knew someone celebrating a baptism or First Communion soon, giant events requiring ornate outfits and tres leches cake and a sense of relief on everyone’s part that things were good with God, no one was going to hell just yet.
I rarely met anyone who wasn’t Catholic. When it did happen, it was whispered about. Did you know Mrs. Gonzalez is a Jehovah’s Witness? Isn’t that weird? If you weren’t Catholic, to whom would you turn for help? No priest? No Bible? It was unclear how a person could distinguish right from wrong without the Commandments. And I didn’t even want to think of what happened to them after death. I imagined babies dying before they were baptized and shuddered at their unfortunate fates.
I often tell people now that I come from LA, or sometimes East LA if I want to hint at my Latino roots. LA is Hollywood glamour, money, and prestige; East LA screams danger, gangs, and irrefutable street cred. In truth, my life had neither. Montebello and all Southeast LA, home to cities like Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera, and Norwalk, were small, mediocre, boring.
My dad, a mortgage broker, helped low-income Mexicans buy first homes, while my mom, a housewife, made sure our home was intact. They balanced their checkbooks, and we bought clothes at Ross, and the only place we traveled to outside of the country was Tijuana, which my mom often said “didn’t count” since it was only two hours south. My brother, Gabe, and I ran through sprinklers in the summer or laid down giant plastic trash bags for slipping and sliding. Katie Wilkins, a white girl, lived next door to us, which was rare in a predominately Mexican neighborhood, and I’d often peer at the swimming pool in her backyard from my bedroom window with envy. Mediocrity, which I felt was directly connected to my heritage, was my first source of shame.
But, in retrospect, we seem more privileged than I realized. I vacationed in Hawaii and Walt Disney World. I attended private Catholic school, from kindergarten through high school. My dad owned and ran a mortgage company for nearly twenty years until he sold it for a large sum and bought himself his dream car, a flashy Corvette that looked like the Batmobile, and a vacation condo in Maui. And by the time I entered high school we had moved into a house with a pool. I never knew what it was to go to bed hungry or face eviction, but shame has a way of being irrational. I looked at our life and I wanted more.
I simply couldn’t understand why my parents would want to live in such a boring place. There seemed to be nothing but strip malls and taco stands, nail salons and bail bonds. But to them, and to other Mexicans, Montebello was a big deal. In the late sixties and early seventies, when they were growing up, Montebello was nicknamed “the Mexican Beverly Hills.” Housing prices were more expensive and the streets were safer than those in nearby East LA, where my mom spent her formative years. Tomas Benitez, the Chicano author and activist, said in an interview with LA’s KCET, “Montebello was mythic when I was growing up in the 1970s. It was the place where middle-class Mexican-Americans lived and came from. It had that quality, if you could get out of East LA, Montebello was Nirvana, the promised land and Beverly Hills East all rolled into one location.”
For my dad, who was born under modest circumstances in Mexico City and whose own father was an orphan, to be able to live in the Mexican Beverly Hills as an adult was a big step up. He played golf at the city’s country club every weekend and served as an important figure in the city’s Rotary International organization. We often ran into people who knew and respected him wherever we went, restaurants, the bank, the supermarket, and they’d shake his hand with sincerity, reassuring me and my older brother, “Your dad’s a good man,” in case we ever doubted it.
My mom, on the other hand, was less interested in the community. She often complained about the city’s lack of good stores and its seemingly endless pavement. Sometimes she even complained about its propensity for attracting wetbacks, always laughing after this admittance, especially if my dad was around, before she’d lovingly touch his arm and coo, “Aww, I married a wetback.”
That term wetback, coined from those Mexicans who illegally crossed the Rio Grande to get to America, was not an accurate description of my dad, who had crossed the border legally and traveled by road, not river. But that didn’t stop my mom from muttering the word whenever she was feeling playful, or worse, when she was feeling wicked. Even though she has Mexican roots herself, I always thought that her teasing meant she considered natural-born citizens superior to those who had been naturalized. She would have likely picked this idea up from her own dad, a WWII veteran whose own parents were immigrants, and whose dark skin made him feel inferior in a country that was even harsher toward Mexicans than it is today.
The problem, for me, was that my neighborhood and my place inside it didn’t resemble my preconceived notions of power. It didn’t matter that my classmates at school shared the same Spanish sounding last names and most of their grandmas didn’t speak English either. I took note of the Mexican guy selling oranges on the corner, and the busboy picking up our dishes topped with messes of ketchup and crumbs, and I thought, No, that’s not me. I even convinced myself now and again that l was superior to those kinds of Mexicans because my parents hadn’t taught me Spanish. We were outgrowing our Mexican-ness, I thought to myself. Pretty soon it would be gone completely, forgotten like a dream.
My feelings of superiority never lasted long. I knew my classmates and I were part of a minority, and I didn’t like the sound of that word, sitting heavy in my mouth and mind. I wanted to be like the blond-haired, blue-eyed Tanner girls on Full House. I wanted the calm, sensible family talks like the Seavers had on Growing Pains. I wanted a family tree that stretched back to Europe. Maybe England or Ireland, France even. But not Spain.
I got hooked on TV at a young age, marking the beginning of my intense bond with screens, and TV served as a window into the exciting world out there. I became obsessed with the families and neighborhoods I saw that were different from my own, which is to say, white. There was no George Lopez on TV then, no Sofia Vergara or America Ferrera. And I deemed the world “out there,” on the TV screen and in the heart of glittering Hollywood, to be far superior to the Mexican Beverly Hills with its baldheaded gangsters, its teenage mothers, and its paleta men making their living selling sweet treats to kids on clean, suburban pavement.
Unlike my dad, who seemed perfectly content with his roots and his chosen city of Montebello, I leaned more toward my mom’s chronic dissatisfaction and her fondness for escape. Like me, my mom also found herself captivated by screens. She loved foreign films-Cinema Paradiso, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down], Shirley Valentine-and I’d cuddle up with her on the couch for countless cinematic escapes, placing myself in the films and imagining the adventures waiting for me in adulthood.
Sometimes I would imagine taking trips with my mom. It’s not that I didn’t love my dad or that I wanted her to leave him forever, but maybe a few months? A year? I picked up on the tension that arose between my parents if my dad was working late again or on another client call. He usually returned from the office when we were already tucked into bed and was gone in the morning before we’d had a chance to get up, always trying to get ahead at the expense of my mom’s growing resentment. My brother and I got used to having my dad around only on the weekends. But even then there were always more phone calls, more stacked files in front of him, and my mom found this difficult to accept, alternating between giving him the silent treatment and erupting in angry outbursts, depending on her mood.
My mom’s moodiness became more pronounced as I grew older. Some days she’d park herself in front of the TV, bored eyes glazed over by some daytime talk show or murder mystery. Other days she’d take me to the mall to try on clothes and feast at the food court, deep-fried corn dogs with mustard and curly french fries. And yet other days she’d be annoyed by everything, the dirty dishes, the piles of laundry, her lazy children, and I’d think to myself, She just needs a break. If we go away for a little while, she’ll feel better.
When my mom was upset, I sought solace in playing video games with Gabe, who was three years my senior. We spent hours toting machine guns in Contra, gobbling up mushrooms in Super Mario Bros., and scouring mythic lands for Zelda. I became obsessed with trying to beat him, frantically studying video game magazines to learn the latest cheats, training myself not to blink, lest I miss a bullet or fireball and lose. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking of playing. When I was playing, I was thinking of what I’d play next.
When we weren’t saving princesses in front of the TV screen, Gabe and I were putting ourselves on the screen, acting out short films he wrote and directed, he’d decided early on he was going to be a famous filmmaker when he grew up. Gabe’s gift for screenwriting and his skillfulness with my parents’ camcorder earned him a lot of admiration. Family parties invariably involved the screening of a movie Gabe was making with my cousins and me as actors, typically toward the end of the night when our parents were tipsy and jovial.
I came to resent what I saw as Gabe’s creative genius, even when my mom encouraged my rising interest in writing, buying me books and journals that I filled mostly with complaints about my brother intermingled with praise for all the boys I had crushes on at school. And whenever she caught me complaining about something being unfair, she’d murmur, smiling, “All the best writers had rough childhoods.”
When Gabe didn’t want to play with me, I’d terrorize him with kicks and shoves until he’d even tually shove me back, at which point I’d run crying to my mom in hopes he’d get punished. When she’d reprimand him, her long, curly hair shaking wildly around her face, I’d stand behind her, laughing and waving my hands at him, thinking, I win! She loves me more than you!
Despite my mom and dad’s persistent praise of Gabe, I clung desperately to the idea that my mom loved me more. We were girls, after all, and this meant something. That’s why she let me skip school and lie lazily in bed with her some days, watching movies and eating popcorn, saying, Don’t tell Dad I let you skip again. I loved keeping secrets with her.
One night, when I was ten years old, my parents told us kids we’d have dinner in our fancy dining room. I was confused. My dad rarely made it to dinner. I thought the dining room was reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas only. And were those candles?
I had heard the word divorce slither out of my mom’s mouth on a few occasions when she was gossiping about my uncle’s ex-wife, or when she was talking about certain kids’ parents at school, and I wondered to myself if this is what was happening. Were my parents treating my brother and me to one final moment of togetherness before my dad packed up his suitcase? Would we be divided between them? Clearly I’d stay with my mom. And then, immediately after, I wonder where we’ll travel to first.
“Your dad and l have some big news,” my mom said, an excited smile on her face. A glass tumbler sat in her hand, filled to the brim with Pepsi and ice cubes, and she took gentle sips, letting suspense build around the table.
I looked at my dad, and he was smiling too.
“What is it?” Gabe said.
I kept my mouth shut, feeling excited yet guilty. Had I actually willed this into happening? Did all my imaginings of traveling the world with my mom come to fruition simply because I thought them? I considered the gravity of what this meant, that I had the power to destroy my parents’ marriage with my mind. I pictured myself as some kind of witch, a source of power and wickedness.
“You want to tell them?” my mom asked my dad.
“OK,” he said, and I held my breath.
“Your mom’s going to have a baby!”
My mom exploded in giggles, the ice cubes in her Pepsi clanking against the glass while she stood up to give me and my brother kisses and hugs. But when she pulled me close to her, my face pressed against her cotton blouse, I burst into tears.
“Oh, baby, why are you crying? What’s wrong?” She tried to pull away to look at my face, but I clung tight, digging my nails into her arm, refusing to let go. “Erica, what’s wrong?”
I heard my brother laugh, confused by my reaction. And I felt my dad come over beside us and put his warm hand on my quivering head. But I didn’t know how to explain the panic l felt at being cast aside, overshadowed by Gabe’s talent and the importance of a brand new baby, and so I lied when they asked again, “Erica, why are you crying?” Finally, I answered, “Because I’m happy.”
I can remember, vividly, the sexual fantasies that bubbled in my brain, seemingly out of nowhere, during my mom’s pregnancy. To distract myself from thinking about my new sibling, I turned my attention to other, more captivating places and daydreamed constantly. There’s nothing like the bulging belly and emotional intensity of a pregnant woman to inspire curiosity about how it all works-babies, sex, the origin of life.
All I had ever heard about sex from my parents came from my mom when, passing the local high school, she pointed out a few pregnant girls who couldn’t have been older than sixteen and said, “Don’t ever let that happen to you”, and then, pointing to my crotch, “don’t let anyone ever touch you down there.”
My mom and dad both seemed uncomfortable when it came to addressing sex, and they were equally as aggressive about hiding it from me. When things got hot and heavy in whatever movie we were watching, the response was immediate: “Close your eyes until we say,” and I complied, listening to the indistinct sounds of what I was not allowed to see until it was all over.
I can understand my parents’ reluctance at not wanting to talk about sex with me at ten years old, but “the talk” never came. Sex was something dirty and sinful, something to blush about, something to hide. These were obviously inherited ideas. My grandparents on both sides had the same reactions when a love scene unexpectedly danced across the TV screen: a shriek of discomfort followed by covered eyes and the demand that somebody change the damn channel. Whether it was a Latino thing or a Catholic thing, I couldn’t be sure. Even my teachers laughed uncomfortably and avoided eye contact when they explained that sex was something that happened “between two married people who loved each other,” for one reason alone: procreation.
Though I had limited knowledge of how sex worked, I began gradually piecing it together when my parents weren’t around. I’d been making lists of boys I wanted to kiss in my journal for a few years, but the lists became longer during my mom’s pregnancy, and sometimes even included rudimentary drawings of body atop body next to the lists. There seemed to be no one I didn’t find attractive in my fifth-grade class; I wanted all the boys and some of the girls too, and even our teacher, Mr. Rivera.
In class, I’d stare at Mr. Rivera’s crotch, trying to imagine what he looked like under his clothes. I stared at my female teachers’ breasts and long legs. I stared at my classmates’ bodies with such unquenchable curiosity and thirst, but I had no idea what to do with this desire except to try and ignore it, though the bubbling in my brain proved difficult to control. And since no other girls were talking about this kind of thing, and I wanted desperately to be a good Catholic girl, I figured something terrible was happening to me.
Though I had attended Catholic school since kindergarten and weekly Mass was part of the curriculum, I didn’t pray much. I made the sign of the cross with holy water, I closed my eyes and folded my hands so I looked like I was deep in prayer, and I confessed to the priest when required (always the same sins: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I fought with my brother and I said bad words), but these rarely felt like real acts of faith. They were obligations. My parents didn’t pray much either. Not publicly, at least. For a short time, we attended Sunday Mass a few times a month, but then we turned into what my mom called “part-time Catholics,” attending only during the holiest events, like Christmas and Easter. Pretty soon, we stopped going completely, so Mass felt like another school period. Despite this lack of practice, when I found out my mom and dad were having the baby, I started praying for one thing daily: Please let the baby be a boy.
I had to maintain my specialness somehow, and being the only girl seemed the best route. I was already used to being the only girl, not only of my immediate family but also among all my cousins. When Gabe wrote a new screenplay, I naturally got all the female parts and I was the sole recipient of the kind of cabs and aahs that come with being the only kid wearing a pretty dress or sporting a new perm or having sparkly nails or whatever other girlie thing my mom bought for me that my aunts loved. I had a few female younger cousins, but they were too little to prove what good and pretty and polite little girls they were. I had that covered.
I wrote down my favorite little brother names in my journal, Freddy or Jason, because I loved horror movies, and I knelt at the foot of my bed in tireless devotion to God, whom I thought of as a magic genie then, thinking, I will be a good girl forever if you grant me this one wish.
But God showed me what he thought of my wishes when my mom brought home the shadowy sonogram print of her new baby girl.
“Look at your little sister, Erica,” my mom said, handing over the picture. “Her name is Ashley.”
I held the print in my hand, terror rising in my throat as I tried to make sense of the black and white blob, before somehow emitting a sound of false recognition. “I see her now. She’s cute,” I lied.
Mixed up in my feelings of jealousy, I also found myself contradictorily excited at the prospect of a protégé. If my brother didn’t want to play with me, it wouldn’t matter anymore because I would have my very own sister. I wrote letters to her, trying to psych myself up, but the clashing nature of my feelings only ever resulted in shame. I wanted desperately to silence my fears and be a good big sister, but I couldn’t help this mounting anxiety from getting in my way.
I tried to keep things as they were before, asking to skip school so I could lie in bed with my mom and watch movies all day. She’d sometimes let me, but I felt our bubble already significantly altered and her attention hard to place. In bed with her it was hard to ignore the growing belly between us, the place where my sister now lived. And I couldn’t help measuring myself against all the wonderful qualities I worried she’d have.
My body also experienced some scary changes around this time. I failed the vision test at school, and despite my desperate pleas that my eyes weren’t that bad, my mom bought me glasses anyway. I also saw that I now had dark brown hair on my arms, where other girls in class had smooth, pretty arms. My mom then noticed that l was often coming home from school with scraped knees and elbows from falling. When she took me to an orthopedic doctor and had me examined, his best diagnosis was clumsiness. All these things seemed serious to me. I felt as if my body were breaking down. I would be the ugly, nerdy, clumsy sister, and thoughts of self loathing filled my head.
When Ashley finally climbed out of my mother’s womb that September afternoon, my growing fears intensified. A baby needs attention, after all, and as much as I tried to understand, my young mind was shattered at how much attention she actually demanded. My mom became fond of the camcorder, filming Ashley’s every move. My dad left work earlier to pitch in, and he spent lazy afternoons with her in the hammock that swung freely in the backyard sunshine. When l’d shop with my mom and the baby, I might end up with a blouse or pair of shoes, but if I noticed Ashley had more items than I, I fumed. Everyone at the mall fussed over her chubby cheeks and happy grin.
“Don’t you just love your little sister?” they’d exclaim, and I’d nod and produce an overly enthusiastic Yes!
Angry with my mom, my new sister, my brother, and my dad, I decided to throw myself into my academics. I excelled in all my subjects, especially language arts, and even found myself on the spelling bee team, studying lists of words all day and often before bed. I imagined myself becoming a national champ, my face on the cover of Time magazine. I would become the family genius.
Placing myself under enormous pressure, I became restless and squirmy. And I was nervous all the time. Nervous I would get bad grades and be held back another year, which meant being held back from the big, beautiful life I had planned for myself. Nervous I would make my parents mad about something and be banished to my bedroom without TV or books to suffer their worst punishment: Go to your room and think about what you did. But I was most nervous about upsetting God, the mighty ruler of the sky, more Nome King from Return to OZ than magic genie. If I upset God, then he would send me to hell, which was looking less like a fiery underworld and more like my bedroom in Montebello. For eternity.
My mom and dad were both impressed with my academic achievements, hanging up my Honor Roll and Student of the Month certificates on the fridge and proudly displaying my spelling bee trophies in the living room. I looked forward to after school sessions with my fellow spelling bee enthusiasts, where we tested one another on words we didn’t even know the meaning of, eating burgers and drinking chocolate malts while we nursed lofty dreams of academic stardom. I belonged to a clique of smart, sensible achievers, and I felt comfortable there. For a while.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the intimacy of this clique and how the majority of the kids in class had no interest in words like pirouette or precipice. Their looks of boredom and back-row snickering were too intimidating to ignore, and so I purposely misspelled words and ignored my spelling bee comrades, becoming increasingly attached to a girl named Leslie, a popular tomboy who had blond hair and a surferdude inflection, despite her parents both being from Guadalajara, Mexico.
As Ashley grew into a little ball of energy and destruction around the house, tearing apart magazines and emptying drawers and cupboards out of curiosity while demanding every ounce of my mom’s wearying attention, Gabe spent more time out of the house with his friends and returned only to retreat to his room or roll his eyes at any of us should we try to interact with him. I tried to stay out of everyone’s way, continuing to excel at my academics in the most subtle way possible, so I didn’t receive any loud praise from teachers. I threw myself into my friendship with Leslie full force. Everything my mom did annoyed me, and I mimicked the way Leslie talked to her mom, rolling my eyes and protesting at simple chores, to her dismay.
We spent weekends watching movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and riding skateboards through the quiet residential streets of Whittier, where Leslie lived high up in the hills among big houses and hardly anyone spoke Spanish besides her family. I loved spending time in Whittier, and I wanted to hang out there all the time. Unlike Montebello, her neighborhood had antiques shops, a college, and white people. It wasn’t long before I started listening to the same music as Leslie, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins, dressing like her, and talking like her. When I spent the night at her house, we stayed up late watching MTV before falling asleep in her bed, our bodies close and warm like conjoined twins.
When I think about the term first love, it’s difficult not to think of Leslie. My attachment to her was so intense, magnified by the urgency of youth, that the relationship still sticks out for me as one of the bigger ones in my life.
But I also recognize something dangerous and foreboding. I can’t help but realize that this relationship became a model of unhealthy love. With Leslie, I learned what it was to rely too heavily on another person, besides my mother, for security and comfort. I felt, for the first time, what it was to be completely enamored of a person, how being enamored can trick the brain into thinking it’s “in love,” and how being in love can sometimes feel the same as being completely swallowed up by that love until all that’s left when it’s over is a gaping hole just waiting to be filled again.
THE WEIRD GIRL
My newfound interest in rock music led me to LA’s alternative radio station KROQ, which I listened to all day. If I stayed up late enough, I could also listen to the radio show Loveline at night. Hosted by Dr. Drew Pinsky and Adam Carolla, the syndicated program offered medical and relationship advice to listeners, and often had actors and musicians as guests.
Dr. Drew would, in later years, be applauded for his work on sex addiction, but it was Loveline that first introduced me to masturbation, which would soon become my primary method of acting out.
I was twelve years old when a caller fascinated with water faucets, a woman, called in and gave me an outlet for all my pent-up sexual frustration. She’d discovered this new and gratifying way in which to have mind-blowing orgasms. I had no idea what an orgasm was, but hearing the way she talked about it, I now needed to know. She said all she had to do was sit in the bathtub, spread her…
Getting Off. One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction
by Erica Garza
get it at Amazon.com