My First Yes
It happened in a basement, amidst a gathering of our closest friends. Through a series of their unspoken, collaborated movements – standing to fetch a can of soda from the refrigerator, switch a song on the stereo, throw a dart, shoot a pool ball, and then returning to a different spot in the room – we were finally sitting next to each other. Our friends assessed the situation, nodded, then giggled, then hurried upstairs to leave us alone.
He didn’t try very hard to strike up conversation. He leaned over to kiss me, but I pulled away, because the last time someone leaned over to kiss me I accidentally bashed his teeth with my teeth and busted his lip with my braces. He reached for me. I squirmed from his reach. I didn’t know what else to do so I did what I knew I was supposed to do, what was already agreed upon, already arranged. I slid off the couch, knelt on the floor, and bowed between his legs. I unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his button, unzipped his zipper, and peeled apart his pants, deliberately, methodically, because I was following a strict and predetermined formula. He wasn’t wearing any underwear. He was already erect. A huge relief. That made what I was supposed to do a whole lot easier.
It was the first time I saw a penis in person. Face to pink, smooth, veiny, kind of adorable and disarming face. I wrapped my hand around the base, gently, just as I was shown, just as I rehearsed in my mind.
I opened my mouth.
* * *
I had a terrible crush on him. Why wouldn’t I? He shaved his hair in the shape of a mohawk when mohawks were still cool and cutting edge. He was into punk rock. He was a drummer. One evening, during band practice, which I dutifully attended every week, in his basement, while he sat behind the drums and I sat on the couch facing him, we played a round of flirtatious peek-a-boo together. He kept hiding and reemerging from behind the cymbals, smiling, looking straight at me. A clear sign I had a chance. I told my friend (girlfriend of the lead singer), who told his friend (the lead singer), who told him about my crush. He processed the news with immediate resourcefulness, relaying the message back to me through his friend and my friend that he would let me give him a blowjob.
I was fourteen years old. He was two years older than me.
“He’ll let you?” was my friend’s offended and appropriate response. We weren’t quite sure if he was joking, just aiming to shock – a tendency among proclaimed punk rockers. I decided to call his bluff. I accepted his offer.
I told my friend to tell his friend to tell him I said yes.
Nothing else had ever happened to me. That is, nothing according to my narrow teen-movie concept of what I believed should have happened to me by the tender age of fourteen years old. I had never held hands with a boy. I had never cuddled with a boy. The last and only time someone had kissed me was three years prior, on a playground, yes, on a fucking playground, where a bunch of other kids witnessed the disaster and commenced teasing so mercilessly I had not yet fully recovered. Some of my friends were going to second and third base. Some of my friends were having sex. I was tired of hearing about their adventures. I wanted my own. I wanted to cross the threshold.
Of course, there was a glimmer of hope that if he would allow my mouth to go so near and around his penis, he must have been at least a little fond of me. I did not yet know of the expression “a blowjob has no face” – or a body for that matter, a body attached to a person with a humble desire to touch and be touched. I did not yet know that acts of physical intimacy are generally withheld for a while, often regarded as transactional, as compensation in exchange for earning mutual respect and trust. Affection should grow on trees, I thought.
Despite such naiveté, there was also the slightly more realistic notion that he really wasn’t fond of me at all, but this could be my start, my big break, my opportunity to woo him. Or this could be as close as I could get to him.
And I was willing to settle for as close as I could get to him. That was how little I believed in myself. And him.
We had to wait until the next scheduled band practice. That was when we were guaranteed a secure place with minimal parental supervision. But band practice without a band wouldn’t be very convincing, so the lead singer, the guitarist, the bassist, along with their girlfriends and the rest of the usual groupie crowd, had to be invited as well. I invited a few extra, for moral support. We were throwing a blowjob party and I was the guest of honor.
For several days leading up to the event, I solicited detailed instructions from anyone who was qualified and keen to share her wisdom. One friend (girlfriend of the lead singer) even performed demonstrations using a banana. She showed me how to hold the banana steady, how to lick to add initial lubrication, how to pucker to make sure my teeth were guarded, how to synchronize the stroking of my hand with the bobbing of my head. She advised me about the cum: how it would squirt out, and for a novice, unexpectedly, how it was thick like a goober and salty, and tasted fairly unpleasant, but considered a nice gesture to swallow. I was thoroughly amused by all the trouble I underwent. I imagined cinematic training montages to inspirational songs. I fantasized and fantasized about the soft caressing, the heavy petting, the mysterious foreplay that was bound to occur beforehand. I wondered if he was preparing himself like me, if he was giddy with anticipation like me, if he cared as much as I did.
Probably not. Boys who offer to let girls give them blowjobs, even as a joke, even just for shock, usually don’t.
The band practiced while I received pep-talks in the bathroom: “wear your hair down… take your sweater off…” even though we were in a basement in the middle of February in upstate New York. I became a most graceless and pitiful debutant, shivering and stiff-shouldered. I lost my nerve. But I didn’t pay heed to the fear I felt, or interpret the fear as an instinct designed to warn me against potential harm. I didn’t entertain the possibility of backing out. Backing out wasn’t an option. I had committed to a task and it was going to be executed. With or without my enthusiasm. I did, however, perhaps purposely on a subconscious level, make approaching me extremely difficult for him. I stayed far across the room from him. I avoided all eye contact. Maybe I wanted him to back out.
Our friends waited for us to take the lead, or rather, for me to stop staring at the sweater in my lap and fussing with the frayed sleeves. Then they deduced they would have to pitch in and do their part. They played musical chairs around the room until we were finally sitting next to each other. Then, all at once, they hurried upstairs to leave us alone.
He nestled into the couch cushion and spread his legs, just barely, slowly swinging them open and shut. He asked me how I was doing but I couldn’t manage a response. He leaned over to kiss me but I was worried I wouldn’t do it right. I had been so focused on learning how to give the perfect blowjob I hadn’t bothered to learn how to kiss properly. He reached for me. I had never been held by a boy. What if I didn’t do it right?
I panicked, and charged toward the impending task. I performed each step, step by precisely measured and studied step. It was the least sensual experience of my life. It lasted less than a minute.
* * *
The blowjob requests didn’t necessarily come pouring in afterward. There were two. I said 'yes' to both. I said 'yes' when someone asked if he could finger me while he fucked his girlfriend. I said 'yes' when someone asked me if I could jerk him off in an auditorium, surrounded by our English class, during a staged production of Hamlet. I said 'yes' to losing my virginity in the backseat of a Ford Bronco. I said 'yes' to getting pounded from behind by someone I just met, on a towel on the floor in the laundry room of my college dormitory.
And so on, and so on.
Shame is a very strong word. Perhaps too strong. Same with guilt. I can’t quite clearly identify the feeling afterward. Disappointment, perhaps. Or maybe a sense of betrayal, being let down by a misguided optimism, a false notion I acquired that if I said yes to anything he asked – and did what he asked well – then eventually, we would fall in love. And when we fell in love, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about pleasing him anymore. I would feel cared for, safe. I might even have some fun. Because at that point, sex wasn’t really satisfying. Not physically. It quelled an impulse, temporarily appeased a hope, but only frustrated desire – i.e. I never got off. I never paused to seriously question myself, to figure out what I wanted. Do I want to spit in his hand and lick his balls while he strokes his cock? Will I enjoy that? Didn’t matter. Whatever he wanted was enough.
Sometimes I didn’t have to say yes. ‘Yes’ exuded from my pores. I reeked of ‘yes.’ ‘Yes’ was always assumed of me.
One time when my boyfriend and I were having sex, he suddenly flipped me onto my stomach and rather rudely shoved his dick up my asshole. It hurt a lot and I burst into tears but he didn’t stop. The word was on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t say it. I hadn’t developed the vocabulary.
‘No’ was a hot, sticky lump in my throat.
My heart would beat faster whenever I contemplated ‘no.’
Why couldn’t I say no?
I reviewed the standard explanations. Insecurity. Lack of adequate coping mechanisms or emotional resources. I thought about blaming my endlessly nurturing yet desperately needy parents – my post-traumatic-stress-disordered father and alcoholic mother – but that didn’t feel completely justified. Not every girl with sad, sad parents grows up to be a total, so-called slut. And yet, I wasn’t alone. Systemic sexism. Derogatory gender images. Why have so many women sought validation from men in ways that demean both women and men?
I honestly don’t know.
I suppose that somehow, through social conditioning, we have absorbed the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies. A man must initiate contact, make the first move, because it is his right and prerogative to do so. And the woman has an obligation to yield. This arrangement almost seems archaic as I write but still very much happens. He squeezes her shoulders at work while she sits at the computer and types. He places his hand on the small of her back, a little too low for comfort, as he passes by her on a crowded bus. He kisses her on the lips at a party, just a peck, just because he wants to, because she’s pretty and laughs at all his jokes. Then she admits her guilt to her boyfriend. They get into a fight, she’s not ready for the argument to end, but he insists on consummating a hastened forgiveness. With each instance, we solidify the arrangement. I don’t believe it is any more the man’s fault than it is the woman’s fault. I don’t believe it is anyone’s fault. We breath it in like we breath in air that’s been poisoned.
I’ve heard a lot of discussion lately about the grey area of 'yes'. Is it still a 'yes' if after a half an hour of whining in my bed because he hasn’t gotten laid in two years, I decide to rub his crotch just make him shut up, just to make him feel sexually attractive and therefore worthy?
But what about 'no'? Is 'no' black and white or does it become greyer and greyer to ourselves each time we take it back?
* * *
When I was twenty-five years old, I worked at a women’s shelter for survivors of domestic violence. I noticed that the same women came back, again and again, sometimes from the same partner, sometimes from several different partners.
“I don’t understand,” I said to the therapist who worked there. “Why do they keep making the same mistakes, falling into the same trap? How can they not see it coming?”
The therapist explained to me that these women were not only drawn to what was familiar, that a healthy relationship would most likely cause them to feel anxious and incompetent, but that they were intentionally seeking abusive relationships to replace and redeem past abusive relationships because they were trying to fix something they believe they broke before, trying to get right what they believe they got wrong before. A misconstrued phrase or gesture, a moment they botched. They could have been more supportive, more compassionate. They could have been more giving, more willing. Because if it wasn’t something they had done, if there wasn’t something they could learn from, improve upon, then that would mean they had just been, well, abused. They wouldn’t be the brave, strong women with a Herculean capacity for sympathy anymore. They would just be doormats.
And maybe, just maybe, if they solved the puzzle, if they figured out how to make him feel good enough, they could finally feel good about themselves.
I thought about the guy I was dating at the time who constantly ditched me to play poker, and how I didn’t let that stop me from rushing up the stairs of his front porch late at night right after he texted to casually inform me that the game was over, the boys went home. I thought about doing the same thing again and again, and anticipating a different result.
I listened to the therapist’s theory, connected the dots, and could see how, yeah, maybe, to a lesser extent, it applied to my life, but my behavior wouldn’t change for a while. A precedent had been set. A habit had been formed. Deeply entrenched pathways in my brain hindered me from new choices. I wasn’t ready to say ‘no’ yet. Because ‘no’ would mean I had been wrong all along and all for nothing. ‘No’ would mean my body was mine – had been mine all along – and with possession comes great power and responsibility, which are both frightening. Sometimes it’s just easier to do what others expect of us.
* * *
The first time I said no I was thirty years old. I was sitting in the waiting room of a clinic in a city I was visiting for the weekend. I had just spent the last two nights in two different hotel rooms with two different men. I couldn’t pee, and when I could pee it was sudden and uncontrollable, on the sidewalk or on the side of the road or directly on my car seat because I couldn’t find a toilet in time. I got tested for a litany of conceivable STDs and came out clean except for a severe UTI that required antibiotics. But that was close. Too close. My behavior was getting dangerous and I was getting bored. The same story again and again. I would say yes to anything he asked and then… that murky disappointment. Betrayal. No more, I told myself.
The second time I said no we were kissing in his car parked outside a restaurant. He grabbed my breast, outside the shirt, but it felt fast, intrusive, because I wanted our kissing to remain innocent, remain sweet for a while. He asked if he could take me back to my place and sleep over. A possible future, which was my definite past, flashed before my eyes. No, I told myself. I didn’t want that. And I listened.
And it wasn’t as scary as I once thought, taking care of my body, taking ownership. It felt very grown up.
It took years for me to realize that sometimes ‘no’ is for both of us. Sometimes ‘no’ makes both parties – the person telling and the person being told – feel safer. ‘No’ is a set of guardrails on a bridge. ‘No’ keeps us moving forward even when we are swerving all over the road.
I wonder what would have happened if I had said no the first time. Told my friend to tell his friend to tell him to fuck off. Maybe both of us would have been impressed. Maybe we would have talked on the phone or gone on a date. Maybe I would have considered myself someone who deserved to impose limits. Maybe he would have considered himself someone who could handle limits.
I guess that’s a lot to expect from a sixteen-year old boy. And a lot more to expect from a fourteen-year old girl.
* * *
As soon as he pulled up his pants, zipped, buttoned, began buckling his belt, we could hear their footsteps rumbling on the ceiling. They hurried downstairs, cackling, raring for the debrief.
“How was it?” a friend asked him.
He grinned wide and winked.
Another friend tugged at my arm until I followed her to the bathroom where she confessed that just a few moments ago, they were all huddled on the snow-covered ground, fogging up the glass of the basement window, watching. They saw everything.
“You saw?” I gasped. She was working on an apology but I interrupted. “Did I do it right?”
She assured me I did it right. I didn’t believe her.
Elizabeth Miki Brina is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at University of New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, the Sundress Word Press list of Thirty Most Transformative Essays from 2016, and a John Howard/Tom H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest honorable mention.