She had been called many names. In high school they called her prude. She didn’t want it to follow her to college. In drunken rounds of Never Have I Ever, with a crowd of new freshmen acquaintances that maybe could be friends, she often lied when the questions turned to sex.
Never have I ever had sex in public! The brunette with bangs laughed as she proclaimed her perceived innocence. She too would laugh along with the others, hoping her own face wouldn’t show the truth, hoping the conversation would skirt the next question that would often come up; when was your first time?
She couldn’t come up with a story that quickly. The vodka cranberry she was drinking in the red plastic cup was going to her head. She was scared she would blurt out the truth. Her turn was next. She chose to change the topic.
Never have I ever done heroin. They could take that as they like.
Tease. Her roommate called her one evening after she turned down the advances of the boy whose dorm was two doors over.
She felt too ashamed to tell them at eighteen she had never been kissed. She was a late bloomer as people liked to call it. And the way he leaned in towards her at that party made her breath catch in her throat, because she couldn’t let that be her first time. She was too in her head, too sober. What if she was bad, and he knew?
Sometimes she would make up stories if the conversation turned to first kisses. Her first kiss was when she was thirteen at a summer camp. Or fourteen with her friend’s brother. Often she would steal a story from others if the groups didn’t intersect. Her problem was keeping her stories straight.
She hated tampons. In her one success story she nearly fainted onto the bathroom tile. Removing it hurt much more than she anticipated as she had to rip it out, like it didn’t want to leave. She didn’t try again.
She became an expert at excuses when the time came. Pool parties were skipped for homework. Sometimes she had a migraine. Sometimes she would absent-mindedly forget to wear her bathing suit. I’m so stupid, she would tell those who would listen.
She had her first kiss at long last, late into her nineteenth year, drunk, in the middle of a dance floor with a twenty-four year old serviceman on leave. At the end of the night he laid down in a bed begging her to come over, while she retched into the toilet with the door closed. She continued to tell others her first kiss was at a summer camp.
She scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the pill in her twenty-second year. Her friends told her gynecologists gave it out like candy. The first doctor refused a prescription, scaring her with stories of fatal blood clots. She left the appointment and cried in her car.
The next doctor took her excuses of not needing a pelvic exam.
I already got one at the last doctor but she wouldn’t let me go on the pill. But I’m not using it for sex. I’m a virgin. I just want a more regular cycle.
The doctor wrote her a prescription without hesitation. The pill made her anxiety spike but she didn’t have to fake migraines anymore.
She continued to avoid tampons, feeling intense shame as she handed a pack of pads to the cashier at Target. Often times she would buy unnecessary purchases just so they had something else to scan.
She met him in the summer on a dating app. She liked that he spent time outdoors and he liked dogs. She wondered if her standards were too low. He suggested they meet up at a rooftop bar in Greenpoint. It was packed with other twenty-somethings, all who could most likely have sex, she thought.
He was a tad overweight and shorter than he seemed in his photos. But his confidence made up for it. He ordered for her, handing over a vodka soda. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she preferred a glass of wine. She drank it anyway, even though the vodka tasted cheap.
He spoke only of himself. I know Matt Lauer, he bragged. Back when it was something to brag about. She counted how many times he asked her questions; only once, when he asked if she wanted to go to his place.
My roommates are gone, we’ll have it to ourselves. And it’s not far from here.
Okay. She didn’t really want to, but she was twenty-four. She needed experience.
He led the way to the Bedford Avenue L train.
I thought you said you lived not far from the bar.
Yeah, only three subway stops away.
They rode deeper into Brooklyn. She wished it was walkable. Her nerves started to get to her as she wondered if she was about to get assaulted. She pushed down her fears. His apartment was covered in half-drunk water glasses and a fine layer of dust over the Ikea furniture.
Nice apartment, she lied.
He led the way to the couch where they began to make out. His body on top of hers in a strangely comforting way although she felt it difficult to breathe. He struggled to unclasp her bra beneath her tank top. She continued to lie there, kissing him back, with her bra unclasped but her top still on. She wondered what the point of it was.
Can we take it to the bedroom? She asked.
He led her down the hallway into a small room on the left. His bed was undone with its brown sheets still scrunched up from where he got up that morning. She felt uncomfortable with her chest chafing against her tank top. She thought longingly of her bra lying on the couch.
He took off his white t-shirt and she followed as he stared at her breasts. She always felt insecure about them. They were too far apart, too pointy. Only one other person saw her breasts in college. Back then she had baby hairs that surrounded her nipples. She always wondered if that’s why he broke up with her the next day. She shaved them from then on.
Come here, he whispered. She followed, sitting next to him on his dirty bed. He pulled her hips close and pushed her down onto the bed as he followed a line from her navel to her neck with his lips. His grunts made her uncomfortable, but she pretended to like it as his lips met hers. His mouth tasted like vodka. She wondered if hers did too.
She straddled him in her jean skirt. His hand inched towards her lace underwear that she only wore for special occasions. She often preferred the kind that covered her whole ass. But the lace made her feel confident. Like someone who could have sex.
They continued to kiss, her mimicking how the women do it in movies, as he pecked her neck in a way that reminded her of a bird. She tried to open her mouth into an O but the movement felt foreign.
She felt a small thrill as he slid his stumpy fingers close to the lace. He struggled with getting around the fabric; he fumbled against her skin. She pretended to like it.
When his finger went up inside her she yelped so loudly she made herself jump. The sharp pain lingered.
Are you okay?
Can we stop?
She stood up before he could answer, running to the bathroom. She stung where his finger just pinched. On the toilet paper she drew up blood. While taking in slow, deep breaths, she asked herself if she just lost her virginity. She decided she kind of did.
Is everything okay? He asked when she walked back into his sweaty room. He was laying down on the bed, looking bored.
Yes. That hurt me, so I don’t want to continue.
He grunted. That’s okay. But she didn’t feel that he meant it.
He asked if she wanted to sleepover. She agreed, only because she didn’t want to take the subway alone at this time of night. She borrowed one of his many college t-shirts to sleep in. He went to Michigan. His room was hot as he refused to turn on the air conditioning.
It’s too hot, she said as he tried to spoon.
Eventually he rolled over to his side and fell asleep. She stayed wide awake.
The next morning he asked if she would like to go to breakfast.
No thank you.
She left his apartment in her jean skirt and tank top that felt like too much for a Saturday morning. She felt proud she had one sexual experience to boast about. Even though there was nothing to boast.
The boy and her never spoke again.
She didn’t know much about her body. She was a late bloomer. Her period came on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, around the time her doctor began threatening blood tests to figure out what’s wrong. She didn’t know what the clitoris was or what her vagina looked like. She knew she bled monthly, but her cycle was a mystery.
She still couldn’t use a tampon. Sometimes she would buy birthday cards to accompany her pads. She had a drawer full of unused ones. Deep down she believed the inability to use tampons meant she wasn’t a real woman.
Her friends suggested that maybe she had endometriosis.
Yeah, maybe. Except her periods were fine.
Are you sure you have a vagina?
I’m pretty sure, yeah.
Well I read a story about a girl who didn’t have one. She had to get surgery.
She shrugged. This conversation isn’t helping, she thought.
Her pain didn’t seem like chronic pain as it would happen when something tried to go inside her and her breathing would get fast. Sometimes she felt like she was going to faint. She knew the symptoms of fainting. She was used to it.
She turned back to Tinder. She came across a profile of a guy with glasses and messy brown hair that she always found attractive. He too liked the outdoors and dogs. And he had a photo of him and his mother. She swiped right.
It was the fall. Her and Mike met at a bar in Williamsburg. She got to order for herself and he paid. He asked her questions. He seemed like he did love his mother, but not in a bad way. Their relationship started off slowly with a soft kiss in Domino Park. She liked how he gently held her face in his hands, and swept her hair behind her ear before going in for it. They ended their night with a quiet goodbye as he hailed her a cab.
The next date they spent at McCarren Park. Then they met at the Cooper Hewitt on the Upper East Side. When he invited her to his place she happily accepted. They kissed on his bed. His sheets were gray, not brown. They didn’t need air conditioning.
We don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with. He said it like he meant it.
They continued to kiss, the kind of kiss that felt like it wouldn’t end. It felt easy with him. And yet. She felt the familiar panic as things started to get heavier. He pulled away.
Are you okay?
She was surprised he noticed. What do you mean?
You’re clenching up.
Oh. Well. She wondered how much she should say. She decided to go for it.
I’ve never had sex before. Or done really…anything.
If you want to leave that’s fine. She said this as she remembered it was his apartment.
No. It’s just a surprise. That surprises me.
Yeah. Me too.
All they did was kiss. She spent the night. The next morning she stayed for breakfast. He made eggs.
She continued to see him. She shocked herself with how little she knew about her own body. Mike taught her the terms of her own vagina. She struggled with saying the word vagina, preferring to call it “V”.
The longer they dated the more they tried sex. She enjoyed the kissing, but when he got too close she would freeze. She had rules; No fingers, no surprises. Her friends tried to help.
Maybe try anal? My friend and her boyfriend have anal all the time.
Yeah, maybe. But she didn’t have much desire to.
Eventually, he got tired of the rules. He got tired of not having sex. They both got tired of the arguments. Once out of frustration he changed into his clothes to leave.
If you want to go, just go. She cried from her bed.
He stared at her from the doorway as if deciding his fate.
What are you doing? She asked as he crawled in beside her.
I don’t want to go.
They laid like that, him clothed, her naked, arms tangled, knowing it was over.
She felt she failed. She felt she was a failure. Google became her therapist.
Can’t insert tampons? She typed.
It showed a how-to of tampon insertion; Just breathe, wash your hands, insert at a forty-five degree angle. But that didn’t help. She couldn’t do any of that without her hands shaking and her heart racing. She couldn’t insert anything without the sharp pain. She searched for other things.
Sex hurts me?
Endometriosis again. Nothing helpful.
She scoured the deep pages of Google. Eventually she found a definition that actually made sense. It was called vaginismus, and it was when your vagina spasmed uncontrollably upon penetration, causing intense, uncontrollable pain. An unexplained anxiety, it usually stemmed from trauma. But she didn’t have trauma. The treatment was therapy and dilators. The dilators arrived in her mailbox a week later.
She used them every day. Lying down on her yoga mat, she practiced pelvic yoga exercises and listened to calming, meditative music as she would slowly enter the plastic sticks covered in lubricant inside herself, starting from the smallest, similar to a pen, until she graduated to the next size up. The largest mimicked the size of an average penis.
Are they like dildos? Her friends asked.
I guess so.
Except they hurt. Even the one barely bigger than a pen. But she willed herself. She wanted nothing more than to be normal.
The boy and her stayed in touch. She ran into him several times on the streets of Brooklyn. New York could feel so small.
She started dating again. Or tried. She kept swiping left. There was always something, and she couldn’t satisfy anyone. She felt nothing anymore.
She found a therapist who charged one hundred dollars per session. She chose her because she was younger than others. And a woman. She stared at the person she was expected to spill all her secrets to.
Are you familiar with vaginismus?
Sex hurts me.
Have you tried getting drunk?
No, I’ll try that. Maybe this wasn’t a good therapist. And of course she tried that. She used to drink to blackout before having sex. But even when she was so drunk the room would be spinning, the pain remained. They sat in silence for a moment as she tried to think of a way out.
Were you assaulted when you were younger?
Are you sure?
I guess not.
She didn’t have a past sexual trauma. That she knew for sure. But when medical professionals forced their opinions that she did, it confused her. She felt crazy. She remembered her previous gynecologist, the one who wouldn’t prescribe her the pill. She began to lose faith in the medical industry. She felt she would have to go this alone.
On her worst days she wondered what made her so broken. And she would feel bad for feeling this way, as other people had actual problems. But she felt her problem was still a problem.
You’re your own worst enemy. Her friends would tell her. But she felt something like ill-will towards them. Because they could have sex. They knew how to insert a tampon. They got pap smears with no problem.
You’re right, I am. She would agree.
She turned twenty-five. She believed she would never be normal. She found a midwife who said she could help. The empty stirrups made her want to vomit. The midwife directed her to her office. She shared her computer screen, pages and pages of sex toys.
I want you to buy a vibrator.
A lot of my patients with vaginismus have had success with one. It may make sex easier and more enjoyable.
You and I will work together to get you ready for a pap smear. Your condition is extremely normal, and curable.
She left the office feeling more hopeful than she had before. Later that night she spent forty dollars on Amazon. It was hot pink and shaped like a flower.
A few months later she ran into Mike on the corner near the deli they once got sandwiches from. His hair somehow looked better and he got new glasses. He looked good. They hugged.
I was going to get a coffee. Want to join me?
Yes. She followed him. He ordered two iced coffees. He paid. It had been months since she’d last seen him, but it felt like no time had passed. Still, she felt nervous.
What’s wrong? He asked. He could always tell.
I’m better. I wanted to tell you that. I think I can do it now.
You look good.
They stared at each other. She knew sex would always be more difficult for her than others but she was willing to accept it. Willing to face it head-on to get over her trauma-less trauma. She just couldn’t use a tampon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelby Crane is a freelance writer who has written short stories, essays, and is currently working on a novel. You can view her website at www.svcrane.space.