Sex Education

Christa Romanosky

2011: Televisions broadcast the Arab Spring. Scientists invent a battery fueled by body movements: a snap of fingers or a heartbeat. Your parents finally get divorced. When you fill out your taxes, you have the option of claiming yourself. You think about it for a long time. During the spring you have short, syrupy affairs with businessmen, clerks. They call you nicknames like “Er,” or “Eri,” drink iced coffee, wear too much cologne. They tell you that they love the spine of your hips, the oval tips of your stilettos, pat your hair. They say, “Do you have to leave so soon?” ask you to stay in their beds, rub their pale shoulders like daybreak. At home you clink dirty silverware against the porcelain sink and think of speculums, bones. You dream of babies growing out of the earth like peonies, tidal waves, axe murderers, a faint knocking at the door.

2010: Another year eating Campbell’s soup and sleeping on an air mattress. You find a job that pays too little, wear a radio clipped to one hip, a badge over your collarbone. There are different ways to describe this situation: You are an actress going to work each day dressed as hotel night security. You are a gambler, someone who woke up in the wrong clothes. You allow guests to take two pieces of fruit, three waffles at the continental breakfast. After work, you sit in your rectangular kitchen, rest the cordless against your thigh, hum along to the dial tone, create a three-part harmony, think about calling Ted, who has not contacted you in months. Instead, you call your mother, keep the conversation short, sensible. You ask about her health, her garden, whether the tomatoes have ripened yet. She has been reading TIME magazine, tells you that scientists, for the first time, have trapped anti-matter. You tell her they could have trapped you years ago and been done with it. “Stop being so dramatic,” she says, and you hear her clear her throat, waiting for you to provide a more excited response. “Erica, sweetheart, you matter,” she finally says.

2009: Machines hum from every corner of your apartment: television, refrigerator, coffee maker. You are a good listener. You jog, shop, work, shower. The velvet heat of autumn keeps everything in a perpetual sweat. It is September when you miss your period. You do many things to make it come back: drink garlic tea, pile heat packs onto your stomach, run three miles, eat parsley. Your roommate Mel explains that some women become irregular much later in life, and not to worry. “Yes,” you say. “If only I’d spent some of my childhood being regular, I might be less concerned.” The test is quick. You pee into a small Tupperware container, dip the stem of the device inside of it, immediately see the plus sign that redirects your life. Ted, in a panic, asks what you will do. When you talk to your mother, you say you haven’t been yourself lately. When friends see you crying in restaurants, in grocery stores, you tell them you feel like two different people. This is, simply put, a bad year. It is like a game of Tetris, where sometimes there is nothing you can do with all those pieces—they remain pieces. Michael Jackson dies of a drug overdose. You start using words like “expunge” and “termination.” The longest solar eclipse of your lifetime occurs over the Pacific, but you still see the same drag of stars outside your apartment window.

2008: Fidel Castro is no longer the Cuban president. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” you tell your boyfriend, Ted, who drives two hours to visit you every other weekend. “You don’t?” he asks, combing through the newspaper, over your shoulder, past the funnies you are reading. Ted is a paralegal, ten years your senior. He kisses you passionately and says things like “kiss me back” and “take off your clothes.” You make him cards out of colored ink and magazines for Christmas, Valentine’s Day. You write silly poems and slip them into the piles of papers he carries in his briefcase. He thanks you, but never gives you anything in return. When your parents call, you say “fine,” “satisfactory,” “status quo.” When Ted explains that he is technically married, you tell him he needs to make a decision. “Really?” he says. “I do?” There are bombs going off all over the Middle East, in India, in Bangkok. When Ted makes love to you, it is quick and coarse. At night you rub your feet over the walls, trying to disperse the heat. In the fall you place a personal ad in the local paper: Wanted: smart, kind, adventurous man who is also responsible and likes pets. No paralegals.

2007: You review the short list of men you’ve slept with. In retrospect, you cannot remember who was the best, just who you liked best. Usually they use condoms, but only when you have enough courage to insist. When your tax forms ask about sex, write, “Yes” and feel scandalous. You join every college club that will have you: Earth Club, AIDS Relief, Counsel for a Greater America. You like the idea of being a part of something.

2005: Everything you know about relationships you learned from friends, the internet, Glamour magazine. “Erogenous Zones You Never Knew Existed” and “10 Tricks to Tantalize Your Man in Bed” convince you that it is best to lose your virginity with someone you’ll never see again, in case you mess up. You’ve watched movies, taken notes. He is average, wears neutral colors like beige and black. He sits on your sofa as though waiting for a TV dinner, a knock knock joke. “Here,” you say finally, sliding his hand over to your right breast, the one your mother lost to cancer. “What do you like?” he asks, and you tell him ethnic food, daisies, thunderstorms. He stares at you. As you slip off your T-shirt, turn off the lights, shut the blinds, he whispers, “Where are you?” His mouth is wet, his nose hits against yours. You let him put on the condom because you don’t know how. Everything is fumbling, shameful, worth losing.

2004: In June you prop special glasses across your nose and watch Venus pass across the sun, one tiny black dot. “A speck of dust, and a century of waiting” your roommate Mel says. She is your best friend, tells you that you’re pretty, that you have many talents, though you’re still unsure what exactly those are. In return, you do the dishes, let her watch all her shows on the television. While visiting your parents, they fight over the boxes of household items your mother collects and stores in the living room, kitchen. Words like “neurotic” and “obsessive compulsive” trail through the conversations like small, lost siblings following breadcrumbs. Andrea Yates drowns her five children in her bathtub. No Child Left Behind is signed into law. Everything ahead of you is yet to be determined.

2002: Your mother discovers a few notes from Cindy, a work colleague, in your father’s coat pocket while she is throwing his belongings into boxes, sorting, multiplying, storing. “It’s nothing,” he says. “And Christ, put my stuff back.” His mustache is split down the middle, his shirt sweated to his sides. Somebody is always packing a suitcase, but no one leaves. You wear T-shirts, jeans when you dress for your doctor’s appointment. Your mother squints, says to you, “That eye doctor is going to get an eye-full.” You acquire a habit of changing your clothes, three times, four times in a day. You are endlessly changing.

2000: It is the turn of a century. You develop crushes on classmates, teachers, television actors, anyone who will talk to you. Your mother and father play Russian Roulette with words like “depression” and “crazy.” The Indian summer rolls out a long line of days, stiff with humidity. Your mother scoops fertilizer out of brown paper bags and mixes it into the garden soil. Your father travels to China for work, Austria, the Netherlands. He returns home wearing the T-shirt, Me So Hungary. The upholstery of his car smells like watermelon and vanilla. The name Monica Lewinsky surfaces all over the news. Your mother calls her “terribly promiscuous, a real piece of work, a sleaze.”

1999: Sex education is full of strange words like “fallopian” and “vas deferens.” Mr. Wright, who teaches health, is also the football coach and gym teacher. After watching a video of a woman giving birth, you lay your head on your desk, thinking about how ugly bodies are. When a girl asks about orgasms, the Coach replies, “Inappropriate question.” He quizzes the class on the only foolproof way of preventing STDs and pregnancy, and you all repeat, “abstinence.” In the shower, you notice a bump, you notice a red spot, an enlarged lymph node. You wonder if you have an STD. Everything is an STD. Two high school students go on a shooting rampage in Jefferson County, Colorado—you begin devising escape routes for every classroom. Your father is promoted, travels to Illinois, Ohio, the great midwest. In his absence, your mother conducts surgery on different dressers, cabinets, closets, stringing out the items onto the floor and monitoring their status, like an exhibit at a museum. “What a mess,” she says. She takes odd items from the room you share with your older sister: a bra, a teen magazine, perfume. You steal them back and hide them behind your desk. No one ever talks about the things that are missed.

1997: You do anything you can to avoid going home after school, spend hours of each day volunteering at the animal shelter nearby, pouring water into oval aluminum bowls, walking dogs. During a particularly slow day, the elderly man who works at the front desk tells you he has a secret. He has a crush on you. He twitches while he talks; his granddaughter is in your seventh grade class. He says your body is perfect, your breasts delightful, and because you’re not certain how to respond, you thank him. He fumbles his hand over to your thigh. You continue sitting until he gets up to answer the phone. You wonder if there’s been some sort of mistake.

1996: Your mother finds a maxi pad in your gym bag. “What is this?” she asks, waving it triumphantly in the air like a small, pink flag. You admit, it happened. The pad crinkles, like unwrapping candy in a movie theater. At school, girls share their cup sizes, compare lip gloss flavors, play M.A.S.H. You buy your first bra alone in a department store, hide it embarrassingly under your mattress. This is one of many years when you don’t say much. You watch what others do, take notes, daydream. Someone gives you a letter on lined paper, a shy boy with crater-eyes. “Roses are red, violets are black, why is your chest, as flat as your back?” You’ve been wondering the same thing.

1995: Your mother has cancer again. She barely talks. Most days she sits in her bed, sits at the table, sits on the drooping couch. Everything has accumulated a lacy layer of dust. Your older sister calls her Miss Havisham. At school your teacher notices that you are a good writer, shows the class your tiny, cursive handwriting on an overhead projector. In September, the fifth grade girls are sent to a separate classroom, seated in front of the school nurse. You are informed that you will bleed every month, without fail, and your only hope to manage this effervescence is to use a plastic stick-on apparatus. “Your period is is related to pregnancy,” the school nurse says. “Your parents will explain.” She hands out goodie bags full of brochures and pads. Your friend Maggie Pierce asks if a girl can lose her virginity to a tampon. The bell rings. In Oklahoma, Timothy McVeigh, wearing a T-shirt with the words sic semper tyrannis, drives a truck full of explosives into a federal building. 168 people die. You watch boys sift in and out of the cafeteria. The vegetable of the day is tater tots.

1994: Your mother has cancer, loses part of her breast, lopes around the house like a machine with a loose wire, snagging on furniture, wilting onto sofas. Her shirts don’t fit and she is bald. When she finally resorts to wigs, she goes all-out. One day she is blonde, the next, a redhead. “Who are you and where is my wife?” your father says, chuckling. She cries. You find a Ladies’ Home Journal under her mattress and read it, learn that a period is something you get every twenty-eight days, that it is called Auntie Flo, the rag, a monthly. You are the only girl in your fourth grade class with un-pierced ears. Your mother buys you large pearl clip-ons, tells you that you look like Brooke Shields. You stare at your flat, caterpillar eyebrows in the mirror. You are ugly.

1993: Something flat and hard like dimes is forming in your chest. It hurts. You tell your mother you have cancer. In Rwanda, millions are dying. John Wayne Gacy is put to death. Nelson Mandela becomes president of South Africa. Your mother is pregnant, loses the baby. She sends you to school with uncombed hair, forgets to make dinner. You daydream about solar systems, the rainforest, beg for a pet. “Animals are disgusting,” your mother explains. You are still scared of the dark.

1992: You push tiny seeds into a Styrofoam cup of soil, pour water, and watch for growth. It’s marigolds for Mother’s Day, sunflowers for Father’s Day. In Virginia, Lorena Bobbitt cuts off the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, and throws it into a field. Police find the organ, doctors reattach it, and years later he becomes an adult film star. The way of things. You are still scared of the dark, get out of bed in the middle of the night to turn on the lamp. When actors kiss on television, your mother says, “They’re just biting each other.” Your mother and father play records, dance to oldies, glazing across the kitchen linoleum, laughing. “Would you like a baby brother?” they ask. You stand on their feet and let them lead.

1991: “Each time you have an accident, the machine will wake you up,” the doctors inform you. It is hard, metallic. Your body is straight, pale, with one short gap where your legs intersect. Late at night, when the buzzer won’t stop, you peel off your wet underwear and stare at yourself. You wonder why it’s called a private if someone eventually has to see it.

1990: Operation Desert Storm begins with an air strike. Your Barbies end up naked together in strange places; your mother tells you to put their clothes on—puffy sleeves, sequined miniskirts. You begin wetting the bed regularly. When your mother asks why this is happening, you hide your face in the wall. The dark scares you, and so you make up rules to stay safe: if you touch something red, nothing will hurt you. Keep the covers over your neck and nothing will attack you in the night. You tell everyone you would like to have 100 babies: half boys, half girls. When you find a box of tampons in your mother’s purse, you cry out excitedly, “Mom, you do smoke cigarettes!” Your mother sings in grocery stores, at the bank, says “I adore you,” and means it. You kiss her straight on the lips.

1989: The world population is 5,263,593,000. When you ask where babies come from, your mother talks about stomachs, a rising belly, eggs and yolks until you become hungry and ask for an omelet. In June, she teaches how to plant tomatoes, digging those deep holes with a trowel, filling them with fertilizer and water. If someone loves you, they make you a Valentine, they make you a birthday cake. If someone loves you, they say, “I will sit on your bed until you fall asleep.”

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