Dear beautiful girl,
We were sitting in the hot tub, you, your mom, and I…You and your mom (one of my best friends) were arguing in that awful, heartbreaking, essential way unique to a woman and her adolescent daughter, or an adolescent woman and her mother.
I could see each of your points so clearly: your mother’s quite reasonable fear regarding your inexperience in handling all of the crazy slings and arrows that life--or more specifically, certain people that you hang out with--will undoubtedly throw your way. And your completely reasonable indignation at your mother habitually, insistently, overlooking all of the good decisions you have made so far in the face of those slings and arrows.
And I wanted so badly to connect those two skew lines, to pull them into some common plane where they might intersect, that I started telling you stories.
Stories of my own life, of my own stupid mistakes, of the catastrophes I so narrowly avoided (by talent, divine intervention, or dumb luck) that looking back on them now gives me retroactive gray hair.
Because, like you, I was a good kid. I was a “straight edge,” as you called it. Like you, I was smart and talented and funny and kind and had already survived so much crap that—like you—I imagined I had earned a pass, or at least a shield, against the rest of it.
I was wrong.
And so I told you about the time I had unprotected sex with a virtual stranger.
You were shocked, and rightfully so. When I told you I knew better, when I told you that I was the person who knew all of the statistics about sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies, you demanded, “So why did you do it?”
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot since that night nearly fifteen years ago. It’s a question I asked incessantly for the first six to twelve months afterward, when I was living the nightmare of tests and worry that such a stupid, stupid mistake will net you. It's a question I asked a few years later, when I heard that a national AIDS awareness organization has just appointed its first white, female, heterosexual president. She contracted AIDS in her mid-twenties, in between marriages, from a white heterosexual male--circumstances that so closely mirrored mine that it nearly sent me scurrying back to the nearest clinic for another round of tests.
I gave you the best answer I could at the moment: Sexual arousal clouds decision making, sometimes with disastrous results.
But you deserve more than that. You deserve the deeper truth. Why did I do it?
He was beautiful. I met him in one of those confluences of time and place that make you think it was somehow preordained or divinely sanctioned. I was relocating to the town he lived in (Santa Cruz); I met him while house-hunting. The chemistry was palpable, I tell you. For the ensuing two months before I moved, we kept in touch, racking up long-distance phone bills (ask your mother what “long distance” means) and talking into the wee hours.
He always said exactly the right things (Danger, Will Robinson!). He understood me. I felt like I knew him.
I was wrong.
Finally, I moved to Santa Cruz. We went on a date. I was dizzy with anticipation. We had a marvelous time. He was every bit as intelligent, sensitive, well-read, and charming as I had remembered. And maybe more beautiful. I was smitten.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had told him up-front (and at decreasing intervals throughout the evening) that I was not having sex with him. Not that night, anyway. Sex was serious business for me. I had made a few mistakes before and wasn’t about to again. Fooling around? Sure. Intercourse? That would have to wait.
But that was OK, he assured me. There was no rush. When we were both ready, it would be beautiful. We would wait until the time was right.
Or, apparently, about twenty minutes later, whichever came first.
I was still insisting we were not going to have sex. Neither one of us had condoms. The moment was not right.
But then he said Exactly The Right Thing.
“Please. I need you.”
Now I understand, of course, that this probably doesn’t sound like the most compelling seduction dialogue you’ve ever read. And that’s good, because it probably means you aren’t as emotionally damaged as I was then.
But that combination of words so precisely tapped my Deepest Issues that it was an echo of every crazy manipulative voice that has ever had air time inside my own head, reminding me You cannot put your own needs ahead of someone else’s! And so I gave in. And it was amazing.
Yes! I know it was stupid! That is precisely my point. I knew better and I endangered my own life anyway.
You see, sexual arousal wasn’t really the problem (though it can lead to some serious lapses in judgment). It turns out the real danger was something I hadn’t even known existed, something I didn’t even really understand until much later. It was a psychological blind spot I struggle with to this day, nearly 15 years later.
I slept in his arms that night, my head on his chest, blissed out on his heartbeat and smooth, warm skin. Sometime early the next morning he woke with a start. I could feel the tension course through his body, running like electricity under my hands.
I need to go, he said.
I walked him to the door and stood naked on the balcony as I watched him drive away. The first watery rays of sunlight broke over the trees, trying to warm me, but I knew better. I never heard from him again.
And that is what makes your mother so afraid. Not that you’re a bad person, or a stupid person, or a reckless person, or a weak person. She knows you are good, and smart, and careful, and strong.
She is afraid because she knows that sometimes the seeds of our own undoing are buried deep inside our own hearts, hidden even from our own awareness.