“Do you ever”—I broke eye contact for a second—“Do you ever run out of breath?”
“Like”—he laughed the way we had been laughing for the past three hours, a way somewhat like thinking, when it rumbles beneath whatever else is happening with your mind and body, sometimes louder than others, sometimes triggered by things happening around you, other times by things happening in you—“Like in what sense,” another burst of laughter, “do you mean?”
“Like just now. For example. Type thing,” I offered unspecifically.
“Oh”—he paused again for his characteristic dramatic effect—“Do I ever run out of breath when I’m kissing someone?”
“Well, let me check.”
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I ordered a skim latte in the Brooklyn neighborhood that my family could afford only because we moved in 20 years earlier. I dropped a quarter in the “Kale” tip jar and a dime in the “Bacon” tip jar and opened my laptop to begin the list I make at the end of each semester of things I’ve learned:
Things feel better when you think you’re better at them. This isn’t new news, but through new avenues, it comes to imply new things. With ballet, you need to get better at it before you can feel better at it. With sex, perhaps you can feel better at it without actually being better at it. Like maybe that will make you better at it. Also, it isn’t as easy or as frequently good as people seem to think.
So I resolved to practice with confidence. I could turn down the volume on my unabashed self-narration once the actual lights were turned down. Hopefully I’d discover some vixen person who didn’t have to run to go pee real quick or ask questions about how and what to do with the body next to me.
The thing is, though, there’s something dangerous about deeming sex a fake-it-’til-you-make-it, or even a fake-it-’til-you-become-it, craft. Sex doesn’t have to be something you figure out on your own by pretending it’s something you know how to do without guidance. Sex is not an equation of how much you can afford to lie about your excel proficiency and then learn on your own if you get the job, because you have the job at that exact moment and you have no chance at developing proficiency in another person’s body until you explore it. Sex is a conversation you get the privilege of having with another person in which neither of you knows exactly what the other is going to say, or how you will respond to what’s said.
How will you find what you could be?
Remember the fortune cookie sex game? The one where you added “in bed” at the end of a fortune so that you and your seventh grade friends stuffed with sesame chicken and white rice could feel a little bit closer to another kind of satiation? (If you’re happy, you’re successful...in bed. Fight for it, you will come out on the top…in bed.) I think we need to play this game more often in life, outside of Chinese restaurants. We need to bridge our public selves—dedicated, diligent, frustrated with the inequalities and communities we exist in—with the private selves we find in bed. Because the chasm between our sexual selves and our socially-conscious, loving, laughing, breathing selves is at risk of expanding.
Last semester, an old man at a podium in Sever 214 suggested to 30 students that our generation drinks so much because we aren’t having sex. But I think we drink to help fling ourselves over the chasm. Sometimes, we drink because we want to have sex but don’t know how to ask for it. How to offer it. We lack models of radical consent that give people a chance to say fuck yes. We don’t quite know how to tell someone that we care for them, respect them, and would like to run out of breath kissing them please (if that’s something they’d be interested in; if not, the first two parts will continue to be true).
We wait for pregnant silence. We get obliterated because we’re not sure how else to get from where we are to where we want to be. Because we’re not sure how to be where we are.
What if we could invite our whole selves out with us at night? What if we could bring the same care and investment that we bring to things that we admit matter to us?
If you made a list of three things about yourself and how you want to exist in the world and added in bed at the end, would your actions stand up for themselves? Communication is hard work, but we must support and fuel ourselves and each other…in bed. There are some good things that one person can share and take and give without anyone else having to lose…in bed. Presence matters…in bed.
A jazz singer, with thick black hair and a stunning longing in her jaw, once told me that she fucks like she sings. With soul and joy and rigor and abandon and occasionally uncontrollable laughter. With commitment to being there. To sing can be sacred whether or not the song itself is sacred. Her respect for singing doesn’t mean she sings fewer songs, or only sings songs she’d choose if she could sing just one for the rest of her life. It need not be rare to be sacred. Some notes can be weightless and some heavy; her love of singing remains sacred. To say that she loses herself in a song is not to say that the thoughts that pound in her head normally, the insecurity, the pride, the questions, the answers, evaporate, but that they fuse into the music she makes. I worry that we no longer lose ourselves in an interaction that sweeps us up, but just lose ourselves.
So when I sat down to another skim latte and laptop seven months after my first list of learnings, my reflections held a new ambition of radical acceptance. Sex no longer was a separately serious thing for which I needed to build an appropriate version of myself. It wasn’t so much the confidence or the virtuosity of my dancing self I needed to aim for, but the quirk, the strength, the flexibility, the listening, the care:
Until I learn to fuck like I dance, the best I can do is not take myself too seriously and maybe fuck like I talk or like I be.
Perhaps more than appearing to be confident in a physical act, it’s about being confident in your skin. About trusting the person you’re with, or rather about trusting that together, you both can acknowledge what a weird and frustrating and vulnerable and wonderful thing you’re getting to try to do together is. If sex isn’t complete in the way or ways it’s supposedly supposed to be, you still did a thing. Still exchanged a thing. Still shared a thing. Maybe even not a thing like the act, but a thing like a part of yourself. Or maybe a thing like a laugh. A smile. An awkwardness.
It was 5 a.m., the bed was an extra long twin, and he had just switched his bus ticket back to New York from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Five hours earlier, he had walked back with me to my room so I could switch from my heeled boots into my flat ones. Our fingertips had found each other’s as we walked through the snow on our mission. The rest of our hands nodded in a clasp, warming me with that twinge of for-now commitment, unanticipated but far from unwelcome. By 4 a.m., when we returned to my block for the third time that weekend after hours of dancing and that ever-rumbling laughter, our fingertips were familiar. He let me indulge my impulse to change into sexier underwear. I knew the skinniness of his jeans made them difficult to remove, and that he frequently needed to pee.
It happened quickly, and it happened softly, and there was nothing serious or unserious about it, and sometimes we were laughing instead of thinking. Hours before, we had been in different states, hours to come we would again be, and months later our fingertips would find each other again for some hours. We didn’t know that yet; nor did we care. In that moment, my concentration was consumed by the coordination it took to inhale and kiss at the same time.
The tenderness of his lips lingered for three blinks after they slid off of mine. I parted my lips to inhale. He parted his to answer the original question.
“I think I was breathing that whole time.”