Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.1]


I went through the motions at school until the summer when I could immerse myself in circus practice. I never stopped wishing Ryan might change his mind. The day before summer break, a friend of mine, Emily, whose older sister dated one of Ryan’s friends, told me that there was going to be a big party with mostly upperclassmen. She was interested in a guy who was going and said we should go together. I agreed and wished Ryan would be there, hopefully without Nicole. I had been thinking a lot and decided I had a proposition for him, if I ever got a second chance.

We arrived at the party around 10 p.m., just as someone’s older brother was about to make a liquor run. He turned to us and asked us what we wanted. Neither Emily nor I had ever tried alcohol, but it was part of my “Ryan Plan,” so we asked Emily’s older sister if she knew what we could get that didn’t taste too disgusting. “Cherry vodka,” she said decisively. So I handed over all my money, which amounted to $12, and asked the guy to get us as much cherry vodka as he could for that amount. He came back with two pints of the stuff, and we steadily guzzled most of it in about thirty minutes. The feeling was funny at first; I felt relaxed and a little lightheaded. Then I felt excited and confident, almost hopeful. The combination of energy and dis-inhibition led me to spill my guts to Emily’s older sister about how much I still loved Ryan. She listened sympathetically, although as she walked away for another drink, I felt a little self-conscious knowing I’d probably just made a big fool of myself.

I got up to go to the bathroom and felt a little dizzy. I steadied myself with the walls as I walked. On my return trip to the living room, Emily’s sister came toward me, dragging Ryan—in the flesh—behind her. He was not with Nicole. He smiled brightly and asked if I wanted to go somewhere in private to talk. Weak in the knees, heart pounding out of my chest, I nodded “yes” and he took my hand and led me up some steps and into a bedroom. He sat on the bed while I remained standing and asserted that I had some things I wanted to tell him.

The condensed version went something like this: “Ryan, I love you more than anything and think you are amazing. You are cool and smart and funny and all the rest of it and I admire everything about you. I’m sorry I wouldn’t have sex with you. I wasn’t ready then. I am…now. It’s you I want to take my virginity. You can have it if you still want it.” I was prepared for it to happen. But then to my surprise, Ryan just hugged me for a few minutes, said, “Oh, Michelle. I do love you.” Then he escorted me downstairs and out to his car, drove me home, and walked me to my front door.

Two days later, Ryan and I were back together, and I still had my virginity for the time being. Especially grateful that Ryan, now a senior, was still giving me the time of day, I made a commitment to give myself to him soon. But I wanted it to be a surprise. Prom was coming up; perhaps I could give him enough novelty in other ways to hold him off until then. I was a bit concerned about the whole thing, so one night while Dad and I were in the drive thru of Mr. Happy Burger, I got the nerve to ask some questions.

“Dad, do you know how long Ryan and I have been together now?”

“Oh, it’s been over a year by now I suppose, right?”

“Yes, it’s been thirteen months and twenty-one days.”

“Right then,” Dad said, being a sport.

“Well, he’s a senior this year and all his friends have already had, um, sex. We’ve done everything except that, more or less, but I was thinking that I might consider ‘doing it’ with him. What do you think about that?” This was tremendously more awkward than I thought it would be.

“Michelle, I’m very glad you’re telling me this. I’ve been thinking about asking, but trusted you would come to me first. I guess I would ask you whether you really want to do it or not.”

“Yeah. I didn’t before, but I think I do now. I really, really love him, Dad.”

“I know you do and I believe he cares about you too,” Dad said, paying the drive-thru lady and grabbing our drinks and bags of food.

“So you don’t think there’s anything wrong with me doing it?”

“Wrong with it? No. I mean a lot of people, mostly due to their religion, believe you shouldn’t ever have sex before marriage, that it’s a sin you could go to hell for. You know I don’t agree with that. So it’s not really a moral issue for me and I don’t think it makes you a bad person or anything. I think sex is a perfectly natural part of being human. As you know, we wouldn’t be able to pass on our genes if we didn’t procreate. There are only two concerns I have. You’ll want to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.”

“Dad, I don’t think he ‘has anything.’ He’s only had sex with one other person before.”

“Well, you can’t trust whether the girl he was with caught something or not, so see if you can get Ryan to wear a condom. And, to be safe, we can make an appointment with Dr. Pinney to see about the birth control pill. You definitely do not want to get pregnant.”

A week later, I got on the pill but kept it a secret from Ryan, which was no easy feat as we were together so much before, during, and after school, and as I could barely think about it without smiling. Several times the excitement welled up in me so much I’d have an impulse to just blurt it out. Other times, after a make-out session where I’d put the brakes on—in spite of his relentless efforts to get me to cave—I almost came clean to cushion his blue-balled- exasperation. “Soon. I promise,” I’d say with pleading eyes.

We were together as much as ever and I was elated. Ryan’s close circle of guy friends began to embrace me more. Their senior-year-not-a-care-in-the-world-and-we’re-all-freakin’-good-looking-and-popular energy was so positively infectious. They treated me like a little sister, with a tinge of flirtatiousness behind it. Maybe they weren’t actually ever purposefully flirting with me; they were just so charismatic and cocky it was hard not to receive their attention without swooning a bit. I adored them all.

Ryan and I spent a lot of time that fall driving around listening to Def Leopard’s Hysteria, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, and Bon Jovi’s New Jersey. One night, Ryan took me out for pizza and afterwards put a tape in his car player with Aerosmith’s song “Angel,” which he declared rather romantically was “our song.” He had the combination to my locker, and often once or twice a day, I’d find a letter or card or some wonderfully silly trinket lying on my books. Every night, we’d lie in our beds in the dark, whispering to each other on the phone until it was finally time to close our eyes. The butterflies never—ever—stopped.

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