When I was 17, I fell in love for the first time. His name was Dylan. I had first noticed him when he performed the Elvis Costello song "Alison" in the Beaver Country Day School Talent Show. His voice was thin and cracked in places during the song, but something about him up on stage playing the guitar with his eyes shut and his head thrown back got to me in a way nothing ever had before. He rocked along as he played, spastically dancing in a mustard-colored suit that he wore with a skinny black tie. He looked goofy and exposed and I felt like he was singing to me. I approached him afterward and told him I thought he should have won instead of the girl who twirled batons to the Star Wars theme. In a few days, we were going out. And a few months later, I was ready to have sex for the first time.
I drove to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near my home in Belmont. In the waiting room there were a few middle-aged women and some young couples who were holding hands, some married and some not. I took a chair next to a hugely pregnant, crying girl who was a few years younger than me. Her mother sat with her, frowning sternly and ignoring the girl's whimpering. I wondered what my mother would do if she knew I was here.
My mother wasn't like other mothers. She didn't bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She had slept with too many men, and some women, and she didn't like dogs or children. The last time I had confided in her about romance, I'd told her I thought the boy who mowed our lawn was cute. She'd delivered a lecture on "hot-blooded Latin types" and the next week seduced the lawn boy in our backyard pup tent. He never came back.
Despite my mother's long history of promiscuity, I had very little actual knowledge of what happened between men and women, and I was grateful to have access to someone who could help me. When I heard my name called, I followed the nurse down the hallway to a small examination room.
I sat on the padded table in a paper dress waiting for the doctor to come in. I had left my socks on because I was cold. I stared at the brightly colored oven mitts with a kitty-cat pattern on them that covered the stirrups at the opposite end of the table. I wondered if the oven mitts were meant to keep the stirrups warm or to help catch a flying baby.On one wall was a large medical drawing of the female reproductive system with everything labeled in large red letters, as if issuing a warning: Danger, Uterus Ahead! On the other wall was a travel poster advertising the Swiss Alps. I pondered the possible connection between the vagina and all that snow and ice. Would losing my virginity be exciting like being transported to the top of the highest mountain, or would I be frigid, feel nothing, and wish I'd stayed home? There were no magazines to look at in the room, so I bit my fingernails while I worried and waited.
There was a knock on the door and in walked a very tall, dignified-looking woman. She was wearing a black-velvet hair band to keep her bobbed gray hair back, and she had on tasteful pearl earrings. She wore a tweed skirt and a light-blue cashmere sweater underneath her white coat. She looked like my English teacher, Miss Thompson, who gave me good grades on my creative writing assignments and asked me to read from Shakespeare in class. Looking at her, I suddenly felt out of danger. She glanced down at a clipboard that had my medical form on it.
"Wendy? I'm Doctor Mayher." She looked at me with a bright smile. I nodded and smiled back. "I just have a few questions I need to ask you before we start the examination." I nodded again. "Are you sexually active?" she asked.
"Um, no, but I hope to be." I noticed that the kittens on the stirrup potholders were playing with little balls of yarn.
"So you've never had any sexually transmitted diseases." She wrote on my chart, sounding slightly disappointed.
"Well, I had a yeast infection once. Does that count?" I wanted Dr. Mayher to like me. I was so pathetic.
"No, dear, not the same thing." Then she asked me how old I was.
"Seventeen." Just so she didn't think I was a slut, I added, "But I'll be eighteen in a few months."
"Alright." She finished writing on my chart. "Now, why don't you lie down and try to relax." I took a deep breath and placed my feet in the cheerful oven mitts.
"This will feel very cold."
I turned my head and gazed again into the poster of the Alps, clasping my hands together on my chest like a nun. I flinched slightly at the icy feel of the speculum going inside me and tried to think tranquil thoughts: raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. For the next few minutes, it felt as if Dr. Mayher was rearranging my internal organs the way you move furniture around in a room — rolling up the rug, lifting the coffee table, and pushing the sofa against the wall. Then it was over. I felt the speculum come out and heard it clatter onto a tray.
"Everything looks fine, dear. You can sit up. Now we have to discuss your options."
Twenty minutes later, I left the clinic with a diaphragm in its own little pink case and an industrial-sized tube of Ortho-Gynol stashed in my backpack. I hurried home to practice, which ended up being more like a Buster Keaton routine than anything else — hands, towels, and sink covered with lubricant and a slippery pink taco flying across the tile in the bathroom. Urgency was provided by my younger sister, Robin, pounding on the door to get in. Later, in her room, I confessed that Dylan and I were going to "you know what."
"Omigod!" She covered her mouth with both her hands. "Did he ask you to? Did you ask him?"
"No, nothing like that. I just know. I know he's the one and that he feels the same way about me. I feel like we belong to each other, that this was meant to be," I said dreamily.
"That's weird. I don't get it. Boys are buttheads."
I looked at her and smiled. She was still a young girl, 16, my baby sister. I was so much more mature and worldly. She couldn't understand how profound the connection between Dylan and me was. Our physical union would be so beautiful.
Eight days after my 18th birthday, Dylan and I went back to his house after school and raced up the stairs to his bedroom. He drew the curtains and the only light was the glow from his fish tank, which threw a bluish hue across the floor. We lay down on the rug beside his bed and looked into each other's eyes.
"I love you," he said. He took off his glasses and tossed them over his shoulder onto his single bed, looking at me like some super-suave guy who'd done this a million times. All I felt was scared and nervous. Desperately trying to hide it, I took off my wristwatch and threw it on the bed in the same nonchalant way. He laughed and then kissed me while he unbuttoned my shirt.
"I love you too," I whispered into his hair. I struggled out of my cords until I was just in my bra and underwear. Dylan was already naked.I felt as though everyone I'd ever known could see me and was watching what I was doing, even though just the two of us were in the dark room. My face felt all red and hot and I wondered if I should apologize for the size of my breasts. He covered me with his body. It hurt at first but then it stopped. He started to move faster and I placed my hands on his shoulders as if to keep him from flying away, then he sort of collapsed on top of me and didn't move. I opened my eyes and looked up at the little fish darting around in the tank flashing yellow, green, and blue.
"Are you okay?" I asked. Was it over? Was he dead? I placed my hands flat on his back and felt his slow, deep breathing.
"Yeah," he rolled onto the floor. "Wow, Wendy, that was great."
I wanted to ask what was so great about it, but I didn't. I smiled weakly at him and thought that I shouldn't have been in such a big hurry to do it and could have waited, say, another 10 years or so. Dylan picked up his guitar and strummed it, broadly grinning. For a second I hated him. He looked so pleased with himself for taking something from me that I could never get back. It wasn't fair that I didn't feel as good as he did.
I realize now, with teenagers of my own, that no one — not even the more reasonable and engaged mother I try to be — could have kept me from that afternoon's heartache. Luckily, Planned Parenthood was there to help keep me from regretting it for the rest of my life and help me plan ahead for the true love that would come.
÷ ÷ ÷
Wendy Lawless is an actress who has appeared on television, in regional theater, off-Broadway in David Ives’s Obie-winning play All in the Timing, and on Broadway in The Heidi Chronicles. Her essays about being a mom in Hollywood, including “Whatever Happened to Musical Chairs?”, have appeared in the Los Angeles press. She lives in California with her screenwriter husband and their two children.
Books mentioned in this post
Wendy Lawless is the author of Chanel Bonfire