It was the night of my sister Kelly's 30th birthday party, and I was anxious. We’d encouraged guests to come in costume to fit the 1920s theme, and before anyone showed up, I helped my sister into the incredible flapper dress she’d found, beige with sheer paneling and sequins in all the right places. She set her black bob-cut wig and sparkling headband in place, swiped a bold rose color across her lips. I wanted Kelly to love the way she looked, because it was her party, but secretly all I could think about was if I’d look better: he was coming.
We'd been having sexless sleepovers for a couple weeks. I'd seen him that morning and kissed him goodbye. I was nervous because I knew we might have sex that night, and I thought looking perfect would help me relax. But I knew the thing making me scared was my secret, which I hadn’t told him. I hadn't ever told any guy my secret: I lost my virginity at 18, got sober at 23 and that night, at 25, I had never once had sober sex, sex without some drug in my system.
Before I quit drinking, I would spend entire days drunk. My last drink was a tall glass of cheap vodka and a cheaper bottle of white wine, which I drank alone because it was a Tuesday, the house was empty, and I didn't have anywhere I needed to be. At that point, near the end of my drinking, I couldn’t handle normal tasks without first having a drink. I’d sit down to write a paper for school, pay some bills, or make a phone call, and the anxiety would hit. Writing rent checks was especially difficult. With the pen in my right hand, I'd steady it with my left, and slowly scribble out the date, the amount and my signature. It was like being a child and learning to write again. But I knew how to write; I wanted to be a writer. I just didn't know to sign a check without a drink. One shot steadied my hand. One shot paid the rent.
When I finally got sober, with lots of help from family, friends and a program, those kinds of tasks finally became manageable, but there were many things that—for a long time—I couldn't face sober. Sex was one of them.
Drunk sex had been easy. It was fun. It’s no fresh theory, but alcohol made me feel more interesting and attractive. At parties, in bed, I could relax without feeling tangibly insecure or cautious. And with drunk sex I didn't have to worry about the anxiety of being close to someone, or even what to do and how to do it. Alcohol anesthetized me to all complication. It got me out of my head, out of myself.
One night, the summer before I quit drinking, I went with friends to Barney's Beanery, the bar in Los Angeles where 27-year-old Janis Joplin had her final drink before going to the Landmark Hotel, shooting up her last fix of heroin, passing out, and never waking up. I was already drunk when my friends picked me up. At Barney's I saw an attractive guy sitting with his friends. I drank my beer, got up from our booth and walked over to their group. I sat down with them and poured myself a drink from their pitcher. We started talking. I went home with the guy at the end of the night. We fell into bed and the sex was good, a fleeting validation.
It had been easy, then, to talk to men and go home with them. In sobriety, nothing about that seemed easy anymore.
As Kelly’s party guests begun to arrive, I tried to be social, but was distracted by excruciating stomach pains, nausea and hot flashes—my body's version of butterflies. But once he'd arrived, I was too happy to be anxious. My stomach had settled. I felt confident in how I looked.
The spell broke when the party ended, and we found ourselves among the stragglers. We were suddenly two very sober people in a room together. I was nervous again—it was time for us to leave, to get in the car and drive to his house and go into his bedroom, to undress and, I imagined, to have sex.
I'd thought about how it would go. I'd even bought new underwear for the occasion—black and lacy, not too raunchy, but still sexy. We would get into his apartment and immediately go at it, kissing and undressing wildly, like in the movies. He’d slip my red dress off over my hair, which would fall perfectly out of its up-do, curls tumbling down onto bare shoulders. I would take off everything else. Then we would fall into bed and have incredible sex. I’d know what to do, right?
But I've learned in sobriety that fantasies are just that.
When we got into his bedroom the demon butterflies came back. I got into borrowed pajamas; in a matter of moments, I’d abandoned the outfit I'd worked so hard to piece together. As I changed I realized I'd forgotten to put on my sexy new underwear.
I quickly pulled on the sweatpants he lent me and we sat down on his bed. I needed something to do with my hands, so I started to take down my hair. I took out each bobby pin and we talked about the party, but the amount of hairspray I’d used limited any tumbling. I caught my reflection in the mirrored doors of his closet and, in horror, jumped off the bed and scampered into the bathroom, my hair in a solid, frizzy, Medusa mound on my head.
Where was the fantasy me, the one who was perfect for him and ready for sober sex? I washed off my make-up and pulled up my frizzy mess of hair into an equally messy bun. There was no fantasy, and probably no sex. I wondered if I'd ever be ready. Resigned, I turned off the bathroom light and went into the bedroom, that familiar Charlie Brown theme playing in my head.
And then, when I crawled into the bed beside him, he kissed me. Not a sympathy kiss, but a real, seductive kiss. In spite of my anxiety, he still wanted me. In my last attempt to ruin the moment, I stopped and said I had to tell him something. I told him my secret. I said I was nervous because I hadn't had sex since getting sober, in over three years. He looked at me, said he understood why I was scared, but that I could trust him.
I wasn't too nervous as my sweatpants came off. My legs were hidden under the blanket so I didn't have to worry about them being seen. I thought I could keep my shirt on and not risk revealing my flabby stomach, but he quickly slipped it off my head. I was naked except for my terrible underwear and I didn't feel sexy: I felt exposed. It didn't help that his body was tan and well-defined, whereas mine was white, soft and melting into the sheets.
I wished I had worked out more. Why didn't I work out more? And then he was inside me and all I could think is, This is sex. This is sex.
At one point, he sat up and I saw him, all of him. I'd never felt more like a virgin. I'd never seen a guy naked sober. I had so much to learn. I saw it all and I was there for it. I tried to play it cool, but my anxiety was right there, too. It was exhilarating and horrifying. I didn’t orgasm: I was too self-aware to let go. Too busy thinking this is sex, this is sex. It made me unspeakably nervous, but I tried to remind myself that the feeling was a sign of change. Sex sober means learning to be intimate; being intimate with someone means caring about him, which is scary. It gives me those butterflies, but in a good way.
Jessica Griffiths is an MFA candidate at The New School.