Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.2]

The day of the Prom, Ryan picked me up for an early dinner. Craving something more glamorous than Pizza Hut, we went to the nearest big city and settled on Red Lobster. Both in a spectacularly good mood, we laughed through dinner, sloppily feeding each other crab legs and drinking virgin strawberry daiquiris. When we were about to pay the bill, a table of four adult couples sitting next to us struck up a conversation, teased us for being such a cute couple, and asked us where we were headed that night. When we told them “Prom,” all the couples chipped in and paid our entire bill—as if it couldn’t get any better! The night was going beautifully.

“I have a surprise for you,” Ryan said as he drove me to a park. He’d brought along some chocolate and a blanket and led me over to a spot on the grass near a pond. We sat with our legs crossed facing each other, holding hands as the sun was setting. “Michelle, you’re the most incredible person I’ve ever met and the most beautiful inside and out. I love listening to you and spending time with you. I never want to be apart. I hope we’ll be together forever. I know you’re the one I want to marry and have kids with someday.” Hearing that felt incredible. He pulled me on top of him and we kissed and cuddled until the sun was down. I reeled all the way back home, then we parted company temporarily so we could both dress for the dance.

I felt warm all night and never left Ryan’s side. Dad told me I could ignore my curfew this one time, and around 11 p.m., Ryan drove me back to his house and told his parents we were going to the basement to get some Cokes and watch a movie. We both changed into the clothes we’d worn earlier that day, put on a movie, and sat waiting patiently for his parents to go up to their bedroom on the second floor. Around midnight, we stopped watching the movie altogether. I couldn’t think of a graceful way to let Ryan know I was on the pill and ready for sex.

We began our standard make-out ritual, and after several minutes of kissing, I moved over to his ear and whispered, “I’m on the pill.”

“Really?” he panted.

I nodded and Ryan flattened out a blanket out on the floor. Looking back on it now, it was awkward going, but at the time, I had no expectations or comparisons to make. I let him lead and take me. Disappointingly, the actual act wasn’t that enjoyable. Only after he’d worked it in and thrusted for what felt like 100 times did things finally cross the threshold from searing pain to almost pleasure. I held my breath almost the entire time. Ryan finished and then just lay on top of me for several minutes. I felt relief and satisfaction, and I wasn’t regretful at all, yet I still couldn’t stop the tears from falling down my face.

I needed affirmation, so I asked, “Was that okay?”

He answered with a kiss. We got dressed without saying much, and he drove me home, holding my hand. He walked me to the door, gave me a huge hug, and I went inside to crawl into bed.

I felt different the next day. I was in new territory. No more secrets. Nothing left to anticipate, plan for—“do.” It hit me all of a sudden that Ryan might want to do it again…and again?! I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, really. I blocked it out of my mind and focused on my feelings of love for him. As it turned out, he came to expect sex every time we were alone, which more often than not was when we were in his car, a place not designed for comfort or conducive to romance. Before long, the activities we did on our dates seemed like just obligatory precursors for the sex-to-come at the end of the night. The dates themselves weren’t as enjoyable as before. I wasn’t getting lost in the moments anymore. I was preoccupied, always aware of the fact that the end of the evening would eventually come. Ryan began saving his affection for the end of the night too. His vibe toward me felt altogether different.

I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t enjoying the sex either. I just didn’t get why it was so important or considered so enjoyable. Looking back, it was partly because I—and Ryan—knew nothing about my body or how to give it pleasure. And, I could see giving me pleasure wasn’t his primary focus, which caused another problem—the relationship no longer felt reciprocal. Even if I had a clue that I should have expected pleasure, I wouldn’t have had the guts to ask for it. I believed it was my job as a good girlfriend to act interested, make Ryan feel desired, and then pretend that every time we had sex “it was the best sex I’d ever had.” I just wanted to meet his expectations, so I played whatever games he initiated, trying to figure out the objective so I could one-up him slightly in a way that might turn him on more. It was all an act, though, always. Every time, I was completely aware of everything in my head; pleasure never spontaneously emerged from within my body anywhere.


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