I learned the ins and outs of sex and men behind a New York City Sanitation Department, a mere seven feet from Nellie Bly Amusement Park. These dalliances played out on the perimeter of an urban childhood spent shooting miniature basketballs into rigged hoops and riding rickety roller coasters.
The sun-kissed crowds, laughter, and bright, beckoning rides that defined my earliest years stood in stark contrast to the black shadows cast by the sanitation trucks and chain-linked fences adorning Shore Parkway. The shadows that held the secrets to how young men operate, to how young women learn, and to how I would learn to operate for years to come.
Having had as much (or as little) sense as any other sixteen year old girl who finds herself entangled in the backseat of a 1992 Saturn with her crush, I now thank God that cell phones with video capabilities were not a “thing” in 1996 Brooklyn.
I had a curfew in those days. Math and English homework to do for my teachers at Lafayette High School the following Monday, probably. Curfews and homework were threads of
innocence weaving in and out of the adult games I began to play with boys old enough to drive, but not old enough to trust.
We’d park between those tattered garbage trucks. I’d silently pray that the vehicles would stay dark and still for the night. He’d turn off the headlights, and I’d hope to remain just as dark and inconspicuous.
I lived about a ten minute drive away from our spot in the shadows. We’d stretch our time together as long as we could, usually until about eight minutes before curfew.
At which point he zipped up his jeans, hunched in the backseat. “Time to go,” he muttered, glancing at his watch. “I have to get you home.”
Little did I know that the sound of an upward-moving zipper on a pair of man’s jeans would provide the soundtrack to my sex education for years to come.
When not hiding in the shadows of our city’s sanitation facilities, we’d retreat to my family’s Gravesend apartment, stealing those rare moments during which I had the house to myself in the summer between high school and college.
“We need to be out in the living room before your mom gets home,” he’d say, zipping up his jeans as he stood at the edge of my twin-sized bed in the bedroom I shared with my sister on Highlawn Avenue.
“Doesn’t Jane get back soon?” he’d ask a few years later, zipping up his jeans as he stood over the bed on “my” side of the dorm room I shared with Jane, a fellow college sophomore.
College was a little tricky. By the time my fourth semester rolled around, Jane was the only sane, kind, and virtually unremarkable roommate I had ever had. And yet, despite my fondness for Jane, I was too embarrassed, too self-conscious to have “that” discussion, or to hang a sock on the doorknob—as some of the guys down the hall were wont to do. Forays into sexual experimentation would have to occur not on my time, but around my—or his—roommate’s class schedule.
After college I rented an apartment. A little older, a little more mature and ready for an adult life, there was an odd, perhaps even predictable association between the moment I signed my first lease and my plummeting inhibitions. No parents, no roommates, no little sisters to worry about. No need for the dark, still shadows of a sanitation truck. Surely there’d be plenty of time for reciprocation, yes? Plenty of time to get mine.
This particular venue—my new apartment—is where the excuses stopped and the snoring began. As in, the guy would literally roll over and fall asleep, notwithstanding the status of my own frustrated condition.
Whether a lumpy car seat or a firm mattress; be us wedged between the city’s garbage trucks or enjoying the freedom of an actual bedroom; be him a one-night-stand or someone who didn’t mind throwing my dirty laundry in with his, the outcome was always the same: My pleasure was consistently delayed. My orgasm was the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on who you ask) in an unfinished suspense novel. Unfinished in that you never quite got to meet that character after all, but you felt her presence. And while she never made an appearance, she remained the elephant in the bedroom. Or in the dorm. Or in the backseat of a 1992 Saturn parked on the perimeter of Nellie Bly’s and childhood.
There are—as there should be—myriad differences between 18- and 25-year-old-women. And yet, whether 18 or 25, all events, all people, all situations had precisely one thing in common: I performed oral sex long before I ever received it.
I never questioned why I was giving more than I was receiving. It never occurred to me to ask. It never occurred to me to consider the possibility that something was off, here. That there were profound imbalances that begged, that demanded a restructuring of emotional and physical capital.
My female friends never complained or made mention of anything similar, although the juicy gossip about dating that bounced off of Lafayette High School’s tiled bathroom walls usually centered on how far the guy was able to go; on how much he was able to receive. The details never, not once revealed that the young woman telling the story derived much physical or emotional pleasure at all. Peculiarly, the stories were always structured around “timing,” as a theme: E.g., “We’ve been dating for a month, so we took it to the next level,” she’d say shyly, innocently, over a chicken parm hero at John’s Deli, a city landmark situated a mere half mile from our high school.
In college, conversations about dating were identical to those that took place in high school. Instead of gossiping about backseats and dark stairwells over meaty heroes at John’s Deli, we gossiped about one-way oral sex in dorm rooms, apartments, and smoky bars over twenty-five cent beers at Lock Stock, our university’s local watering hole.
“We’ve been dating for a month, so it seemed ok to take it to the next level,” she’d say, a little more forcefully, confidently, practically daring you to question the reasons for her decision.
“The next level” was always synonymous with permitting a young man to receive pleasure that he, in more ways than not, felt entitled to, particularly if enough time had passed. “The next level” never seemed to have much to do with reciprocation, and if it did, she never said so. Oral sex was simply the enemy weakened by the weapon of time. A gift a guy received for his patience.
She received no such gift, and if she did, she never did say so. Oral sex was a narrow, one-way street. Like eastbound Shore Parkway.
Conversely, I’ve heard many a young man boast about the pleasure he had received, but never about the pleasure he had given in return. The kind of rumors and stories that ricocheted off of classroom and dormitory walls, rumors and stories that echo and pierce and stagnate in only the way these kinds of rumors and stories can. The kind of rumors and stories that destroy a young woman for daring to explore her sexuality, but reward a young man for aiding and abetting those same explorations. A plaintiff in cahoots with the defendant in the court of public opinion.
And of course these topics were not discussed at home—at least not in any useful way. The extent to my household’s sex and relationship education occurred when I was 16, after mom returned home from the supermarket one winter evening.
“See this?” she asked me, rushing into the living room, clutching a tin of extra virgin olive oil. She still wore her gloves, coat, and slush-soaked boots, her hair and shoulders covered in a thin layer of flurries.
“Huh?” I responded, confused. It were not as though I knew how to cook.
“This,” she said, pointing to the word virgin on the bottle, “is you.” Her tone was urgent. Her boots, her coat, the flurries…She was on a mission, having devised her sex education curriculum in the baking aisle at the local Pathmark, compelled to execute it quickly, perhaps before she lost her gumption.
At that point, any obvious relationship between my status as a virgin and that container of extra virgin olive oil would barely last another two years. But in my mind, as long as I was not figuring out—or ever making demands about—my own wants and needs, physical and otherwise, I was able to maintain some sense of loyalty to that dark green tin; some level of beholden-ness to the education I had received on Shore Parkway and what olive oil would come to symbolize in my young mind. If I declined to investigate my own human needs, I’d receive a pass. I’d remain that obedient, “good” 16 year old girl, sprawled out on the couch in her family’s Brooklyn living room, forever unrefined. Harvested in the summer of 1980 and with no foreseeable expiration date. Extra virgin olive oil—like Nellie Bly’s—offered another illusion of innocence.
And for the next ten or so years—in honor of olive oil and those old lessons learned on Shore Parkway—I never learned to give to, or invest in, myself. I distanced myself from most people, and even moved a handful of states away from everything I knew to achieve a physical distance that would make my desired engagement with emotional detachment more fluid. More real. Surely, I remained “active” with the opposite sex, but activity was about all they could reasonably hope to achieve. Any sign that I had an actual need, physical or otherwise, was a form of weakness, or worse, an act of betrayal.
More than a decade would pass before I noticed the link between my earliest lessons about sex and olive oil and the emotional and physical imbalances I experienced in many of my adult relationships—sexual and otherwise. Divested from my own wants and needs, I remained the glue that bonded unstable relationships. I initiated the phone calls that needed initiating. I made the truces that needed trucing.
I gave (to others) what needed giving, explored (for others) what needed exploring, emotionally and physically labored over that which needed laboring, and paid for that which needed paying. I was the sanitation truck that shielded those in need of shielding—particularly that time when I found myself temporarily entangled in the embrace of a married man.
Despite the physical distance from my childhood home and upbringing, from the backseat of a 1992 Saturn, from roommates and dorm rooms, history had developed the stunning habit of finding every conceivable opportunity to repeat itself in my new life. The giving—whatever the kind—remained plentiful, and often (if not always) against my own human interests and needs. With each act of labor, I withdrew that much more from my personal bank of emotional and physical capital.
Oddly, I never lost what needed losing, or learned what needed learning. These particular outcomes were perhaps the most problematic byproducts of those earliest lessons learned about olive oil, sex, and relationships; of those secrets harbored in the shadows of Brooklyn’s sanitation trucks.
Recent psychological research suggests that we are at our best adult-selves when we form—and keep—solid relationships from a young age. But if there is anything else I learned while growing up in Brooklyn, whether on Shore Parkway, in Lafayette High School, as a function of the baking aisle at Pathmark, or some other venue, it’s that life does not always work this way. Not in Brooklyn. People come from all over to attend school, and events, and anything else the city has to offer. And when they’re finished, they go right back to the corner, street, enclave, or borough from whence they came, or they leave New York City altogether.
I’m one of those people who left. I left a long time ago. Which means that the research about what it means to be our best adult-selves has left me amply screwed.
Or am I screwed? Am I really?
“We have all the time in the world,” she said, as she curled up even closer to where I lay in her bed, in her world, for the first time three summers ago, her left hand navigating toward the zipper on my jeans.
“Hmmm?” I thought I knew what she had said, I thought I had heard correctly, but I wanted to hear it again.
“I hope this doesn’t annoy you, but I just want to please you, and I don’t really give a damn about me.”
I knew what she meant, damn I knew what she meant, and I didn’t argue. Is this what it felt like, to be on the brink of an adult relationship? Is this what it sounded like, to be entering a stable union? Was this event going to reveal itself as the first opportunity to unlearn everything boys and men and olive oil and zippers and Brooklyn’s various landmarks had taught me all those years ago?
Later that evening, after I came that much closer to a response to my own questions, we mulled over what to eat for dinner.
“How about a grilled chicken salad?” she asked. “I picked up some arugula yesterday.”
“Perfect,” I said. “What do you have for dressing?”
“I make my own. With garlic, lemon, balsamic, and spices,” she said.
“Perfect,” I said again.
“Is olive oil ok?” she asked.
I smiled to myself. “Olive oil is just fine.”
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