I was almost 28 when, on Halloween, I had sex with a woman I hardly knew after a house party. She wore pink buckles and studs, a pink headband, and pink leg warmers. She said she was a punk rocker. I wore a gray sweat outfit and face paint to match. I was a dead rat—roadkill—and I channeled every ounce of the rodent’s innate cunning to score with this woman. Because until that night, I had been a virgin.
Yes, I was a 27-year-old male virgin, hard to find these days, even in the Bible belt. I spent most of my twenties shunning sex. But it’s not like anti-fornication Christian doctrine had been seared into my brain at a young age, nor did I emerge from a decade-long hibernation after a botched excursion into deep space. I was a pretty normal straight man who went on dates, made out, got naked, and put his fingers anywhere a willing woman would allow. But I wouldn’t go all the way.
I’m now 39 years old, with a little more than a decade of pretty successful, mostly missionary sex behind me. But I’m still tangling with the question of why I waited so long to actually, well, penetrate somebody. It’s the stumper at the heart of my first one-man show, No Sex, Please, which premieres July 12 at the Capital Fringe Festival.
Since 2009, I’ve told more than 20 seven-to-10-minute stories on D.C.-area stages, and a lot of them were about—surprise!—sex. To make No Sex, Please, I expected to crib a big chunk of my material from those tales—The Birds and Bees, First Kiss, Condom/Condom, Amsterdam Dildo, She’s a Lesbian!, and The Deflowering among them. I assumed I’d pillage them and easily cobble together a longer, 50-minute piece. Just add transitions and boom, instant show! When I started writing No Sex, Please in March, I copied blocks of text and moved them around the page, like they were pieces in a slide puzzle that obscured the real nature of love and sex.
At a workshop in April, a friend asked me the question that every storyteller hates to hear: “What’s this about?” At issue was my perhaps too-neat explanation for my virginal twenties. He didn’t quite say it, but my tale was a Potemkin Village. It touched on the laugh riot of my wannabe Kennedy upbringing, the lunacy of my dad’s sex talk, and the porno-inspired play-by-play of my Halloween sexcapade. But a huge gap remained, the size of Nixon’s 18 minutes of missing Watergate tape. I was skirting the question of why.
Truth is the promise storytellers make to their audience and the price we pay for their generosity. It goes beyond narrative, spit-shone observations, and jokey “internals” to the place where individual truth meets the universal. It’s at that point the story opens up and moves the audience to think, “Wow, maybe we can hang out after the show!” That’s what attracted me to storytelling in the first place, and it’s why I keep doing it. It’s also why, if I ever lie onstage, I feel terrible about it. And the audience knows I’ve lied. They always do.
But I wasn’t sure if I could tell the truth this time, or at least enough of it. Where did honest searching end and exhibitionism begin? Maybe I was in over my head. I drank too much coffee and bourbon and burned incense in between spasms of cutting and pasting, pacing and cringing. Over 12 hours one weekend, I wrote countless intros and segues, then deleted them all. [INSERT SOMETHING HERE] was my go-to phrase. Within a week of that workshop, my ribcage buckled and sent charges through my fingers and toes. The Fear had taken hold.
The Fear is what consumes a journo friend of mine when she’s facing down a massive deadline. I had long thought of it as Casper the Friendly Ghost, a doughy apparition holding placards scrawled with encouragements like, “You can do it!” and “Believe in yourself!” But no. The Fear is Dick Cheney in a Grim Reaper robe, smoking an unfiltered cigarette and clutching a fly swatter. “You can always quit,” he hisses. Swat!
The Fear knows me well. It’s watched me quit chorus, my broadcast journalism program, 100 little writing and storytelling projects, improv—almost everything that’s really meant something to me at one time or another. But here’s one thing it’s forgotten: I’m cheap. Having dropped more than $800 just to get into Fringe, I wasn’t about to give in to that dark force. So I sat down and confronted my computer screen. I dispensed with the bourbon. And then I remembered something my mother used to say: “God is watching you.”
Clatter clatter clatter. Soon, I was ferociously typing, writing about my head stuck between a woman’s legs at Dewey Beach.
The gaps were shrinking.
But would my story seem believable? I was aiming for that sweet spot—let’s call it the “authentic” zone—where spontaneity, point of view, and individuality come together and drive a great narrative. Some say that I’m hindered by my method, which is to write everything down and then memorize. This approach lends polish, but it can also sound “written” or (more generously) “rehearsed,” which, as aspersions go, is pretty much tops in storyland. Plus, memorizers run the risk of the nerves-induced space-out. If you’ve ever seen someone scrunch his forehead and stare off into the distance in front of an audience, you can bet he’s lost his place. Watching it is like waiting out a video buffer on YouTube.
To mitigate, then, I record my script and listen to the audio. It helps me identify stilted, written-sounding passages and anything that doesn’t make sense or support the story. Then I rewrite. Over and over. With each iteration, I get closer to the truth.
I remember a toast at a wedding reception not too long ago, where the maid of honor was standing around gushing about the bride’s virginity. Hearing that, some of my friends snarfed their drinks. Hadn’t the bride slept with [name redacted], with the proviso that he not come inside her?
That’s when I learned the truth of virginity—the bride’s and my own. It’s a state of mind more than a state of being. The rules that govern it are both essential and yet beside the point.
The truth is I have reasons for abstaining from sex all those years. Twin traumas led to my extended virginity: my mother’s passionate yet abusive relationship with my stepfather and my own failed, four-year pursuit of one woman in college. The latter story ends in the woman’s bedroom, just weeks before graduation, when I had a massive panic attack just as we were about to make love. (That’s what I called it. Adorable, I know.) The experience not only scuttled any hope I had to marry her, but also left me with an intense, lingering feeling of inadequacy that pushed me away from normal sexual relationships and into a dark prison of perfectionist longing.
I became absorbed in a personal philosophy cribbed from Catholic mythos, 12-step pop psychology, and dollops of Star Trek and When Harry Met Sally. In my relatively fascist belief system, the hope of a perfect future always trumped the raw frailty of right now. Why have sex with a woman I may never love—and who may never love me? I believed that, one day, propriety and my maternally driven, pseudo-Victorian worldview would deliver happiness…and maybe awesome sex. But where’s the boundary between reason and unreason, and when does one cross over?
Storytelling is the medium through which I’ve come to know myself and where I fit in with everyone else. Otherwise, I’d be a loner. It’s allowed me to see how our bumbling attempts to live collect into a gurgling pool, where they expand and then consume others. The pool normalizes reality. It doesn’t say who’s right; it says, merely, that we belong.
No Sex, Please is a valedictory of sorts, following four years learning the art of storytelling. The show’s title glows in neon blue on my promotional postcards, like a sign promising color TV at an old roadside motel. I’ll be 40 years old in January. This is my best effort yet to explain myself to the world.
Illustration by Carey Jordan