Recently, I found myself driving around a neighborhood in Brooklyn that took me back to a pivotal moment in my adolescence. The neighborhood hasn’t changed that much from the way it looked to me all those years ago and the story of how I almost lost my virginity came galloping back to me. Sometimes a flavor or a smell that I have only been exposed to once or twice will return years later and bring back floods of memories to go along with it. It was like that to be back in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, a place I had only visited once before.
Like all teenage girls I suppose, I was concerned at sixteen about the fact that I had never had real sex. I had not “gone all the way.” My best friend already had, over the summer visiting cousins in New Jersey, after meeting a very cute boy who deflowered her in the back of a borrowed truck. She was smitten with him for months afterward, swooning over a particular Bob Dylan song that he liked every time she put it on the record player.
We all thought it was supposed to happen like that. On some dirty floor or couch that didn’t belong to either party and would link you forever to a boy you would always think of as your first love. We assumed this from romantic movies and the scant information we picked up from our mother’s, older sisters or cousins.
Then another friend did it with Nate Ovalman who was the cutest guy in our school and a grade above us. Nate was extremely athletic and daring. He would do anything, including climb the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge at night, and once, on a dare, he jumped out of the second story window of his father’s apartment building onto the gassy courtyard below without getting hurt.
I had no chance of doing it with someone like Nate. There weren’t very many dreamy guys in our small school and the ones that were cute were taken. My friends felt the same way and we had started looking elsewhere for eligible dating material. We had fake IDs and went to clubs on the weekends where the bouncers would always let us in, knowing we were underage, and we assumed it was because we were dressed up and pretty enough.
One night we were at a club called Harrah that was often populated with older guys from New Jersey and Long Island. Being underage females we were in the minority and got plenty of attention, which was exactly what we wanted. My best friends were both beautiful girls so I was used to being noticed last or not at all. That night a couple of cute guys bought us drinks and we danced and flirted with them until one of them asked for my friend’s number and I drifted away, onto the dance floor alone.
At the time I was obsessed with Elvis Costello, which had created in me an eye for more nerdy types and I noticed a guy staring at me who was cute in that way. He was tall and had a receding hairline though he didn’t look older than twenty. He might be Italian or Jewish, I thought, with his black hair and sleepy brown eyes. But it was his obvious interest in me that excited me the most.
We ended up dancing and talking a little and I let him clasp my hand for a long time. By the end of the night I decided he was okay and I took his number. He looked at me seriously as he handed it to me. “Call me okay?” he pleaded. “Really. I want you to call me,” and I said I would.
Two days later I called and we talked over the phone for ten minutes. His name was Bruce and he was sweet. He lived in Bay Ridge. He worked in Manhattan, for his uncle, selling something or other I didn’t catch. What did I know about jobs in Manhattan at sixteen? I stood in my kitchen, my father a few feet away from me wiping dishes, and I wrote down his address on a piece of paper.
The following weekend I was on the R train heading out to Bay Ridge to see Bruce. I didn’t have any romantic notions of our being boyfriend and girlfriend. This was strictly business. I wanted to get it over with. I figured he was a good candidate. He seemed nice and I liked his looks even though he wasn’t exactly handsome. His skin was very smooth, I remembered from touching his arm at the club and he had bought me a drink and touched the small of my back as he handed it to me like a man would. He seemed mature and even though it didn’t take long for us to run out of things to say over the phone, I believed I liked him.
It was a few long blocks from the subway station to his house. He had offered to meet me at the train but I insisted on meeting him at home. I had only seen him in the dark and the idea of walking down the street with him in broad daylight was too risky. What if he had horrendous acne scars I hadn’t seen or what if he was much older than I realized?
It was a very different neighborhood than mine. All the houses looked the same. Narrow, only one or two stories with brick walks and aluminum awnings, some of them striped like a barbershop. Definitely Italian, I thought as I noticed statues of The Virgin Mary in people’s windows and in the area next to the houses short stoops where people sometimes planted a tiny garden but most stored their garbage cans.
His place was just as ugly as the others. Fake brick siding and the red and white aluminum awning. There were matching plaster Virgin Mary’s on either side of the front door, and as I stood there waiting for someone to answer the bell I thought about turning around and running back to the subway, until the door opened.
It was Bruce. He wasn’t looking particularly nice. He had on a tee shirt that was nothing special and some jeans that were the same. I noticed a tiny gold chain around his neck. “Hi,” he said happily and led me inside.
I had never been inside a place like his before. We seemed to be in the main room, which was not large and was crammed with more furniture than I could take in at a glance. I saw white lace doilies everywhere and cabinets full of little figurines, tiny decorative plates, and souvenirs like they have in tourist shops. I think Bruce sensed my overwhelm and led me into the kitchen where he offered me a coke.
“Who lives here?” I asked, genuinely surprised not to find myself in a bachelor’s apartment.
“Just me and my mom,” he said. He seemed only mildly self conscious about living with his mother. Maybe all his friends did too.
We went back to his room, me clutching my glass full of coke and ice, grateful for its cooling effervescence as I found myself feeling claustrophobic for the first time in my short life. I never minded waiting in a dark closet during a game of hide and seek, but this place with its cramped rooms and busy walls was making it hard to breathe.
I sat on the bed next to Bruce and we tried to talk but it was more awkward than I had dreamed it would be. We had nothing to say. We tried music but he didn’t even like New Wave, he said and I couldn’t go on after that. I noticed his shoes were all wrong and there was nothing I could even comment on in his room. He had tartan wallpaper and posters of sports heroes that looked like they had been there since he was eight. He was duller than I had even imagined and I suddenly realized I had to get out of there before something happened.
I didn’t even finish my coke. I don’t know if I was there longer than five minutes. I sort of feel sorry for him, now that I think about how he must have felt in that moment. But what was he thinking? That he really liked this young girl? That he was lucky because some girl from Brooklyn Heights wanted to lose her virginity and had picked him? I wonder if that thought occurred to him or if he actually thought we might date. I have no idea. But he wasn’t a bad guy. I didn’t pick someone strange or aggressive though I clearly could have. It was just dumb luck that I merely didn’t like him.
Walking back to the train I felt a mixture of humiliation and relief. I was only humiliated by my own decision to go out there in the first place. But I also recognized that I was lucky nothing more happened and I was grateful that I had decided to leave, no matter how it made him feel. I realized, faced with the option to “get it over with,” that my virginity was something important and I didn’t want to just toss it off like some minor inconvenience to a guy I didn’t even know.