I’m 25 years old and a virgin. I’ll remain one until I get married, and if I never marry, I’ll die one. It goes with the Mormon territory. We’re taught from the time we’re small that that’s the way it’s going to be, but we’re also encouraged to think it through and decide for ourselves. We just know how we’re supposed to decide.
I realize it’s not a popular approach to sexuality.
I’m in an emotionally intimate, pseudo-romantic relationship with Oscar, a man who’s not a member of the Mormon Church. We want different things. I’d like to scrub my babies in the kitchen sink and raise them to be good upstanding Mormons; he’d like a writing career in New York City and maybe to cohabit with a nice lady and have a few kids—his words. We’re PhD students in southern Mississippi, nothing interesting for miles around but each other, and we’re in love, but complicatedly so.
One night he tells me, “Look, Deja. I know what I’m sacrificing. I know if I were with you, I’d always have clean clothes and you’d always pack my lunch. Before I could even think something could be done around the house, you’d have done it. Because you’d want to.”
“Are you complimenting me?” My feet are tucked up under me on Oscar’s red couch, and I’m trying really hard (for the hundredth time) to wrap my brain around why he doesn’t want me. I mean, why he loves me, but why he doesn’t fight to keep me.
I can’t look at him. I’m staring at the treadmill, the blinds, the cat, anything but him. Some part of me is ashamed that I can’t understand it. I know he’s not going to beg me to run away to New York with him; I know that if he did, I couldn’t do it. And still I find myself fantasizing about being there with him, telling him about my day, going to museums on Saturdays, even having his stupid dinner on the table when he gets back. It’s pathetic.
Part of the problem is that we’ve got different theories of love. He’s told me on several occasions that for him, love means letting someone go. For me, love means making a decision to be with someone and adjusting your life to make it work, even if that means clamping down on the jugular. But he’s probably right. My way has already led me through a world of hurt, and I assume I’ll have a world more before I’m done.
“I could have gotten you to sleep with me?” He asks as he crosses the room to the couch.
I laugh, embarrassed. I had told him that earlier in the conversation, and he was still ruminating. “I think so. There was a while when I was pretty weak-willed. Sometimes I felt ready to chuck it all, take off my shirt, and climb on your lap. If you had applied some pressure, I think I would have caved.”
“Wow. I’m such a prince.”
“But you see, it’s weird. Because I also hate you for it. I hate that you never tried. I sometimes wonder if I were prettier, if you would have.”
He thinks about it for a while. Then he says, “No. No, come on, it isn’t like that. I mean, I’ve wondered before if it could happen and if maybe it would change the way you see the world. And you’d have experiences and maybe someday you’d go back to being Mormon and maybe you wouldn’t, but you’d be glad about what happened. But on the chance that it wouldn’t change the way you see the world, I knew it would ruin you. And I couldn’t ruin you.”
The thing that bothers me is that I’m infantilized from both sides, an anomaly in both cultures. Out in the world, a virgin is considered naive because so few find it meaningful to wait for marriage. And within Mormon culture, a virgin is uninitiated, because she doesn’t have a husband and family, and is therefore a second-class citizen, an outsider. And the thing is, it’s beginning to seem a little silly to me to be my age and have no real clue what sex is about, to get squeamish when we talk about it in the literature classes I teach.
For the most part I get what stuff means. But sometimes one of my university students will make a comment, and I’ll think, “My goodness. This kid has had sex. And I haven’t. In fact, most of these students probably have. My understanding is pure theory. No one has ever even laid a hand on my breasts.”
And it’s no better within the Mormon Church. Mormons put the family unit at the center. You go to church as a family, you sit as a family; while you’re there you talk about improving your family. It’s not that I disagree with the approach. The problem is, I do agree. But I’ve outgrown my family, or maybe they’ve outgrown me. And my new one hasn’t shown up yet. So I go to church by myself, and when they talk about families, I cringe inside.
So why in the world am I still a virgin? How come I hold on to my virginity when there’s a man who would have me? This is how I grew up, with God and sexuality and family and sin and goodness all tied up together. I don’t think I’m even capable of pulling those things apart into individual strands, at least not for myself. And so, whether I like it or not, my sexuality has to do with my relationship with God, and I like having a relationship with Him. He’s always taken good care of me. And at least for Mormons, He’s quite clear on sex.
Coming to Mississippi opened my eyes to the way the rest of the world sees religion. I’m learning how much it’s damaged people, or, on the other hand, how absolutely ridiculous and naive it can seem. But I don’t know where else in the world I could access the feeling I get in the temple: connection to everyone and everything in the universe, the feeling that God is quite close and my whole life is quite clear, and the world seems like a lovely, or at least a manageable, place.
It’s that feeling that keeps me from taking off my shirt. I can’t betray it.
Once, when my faith was low and I wanted so badly to be with Oscar, I considered leaving the church more seriously than ever. That morning Oscar came over for breakfast, and afterward I hopped in the shower. I was standing naked in the bathroom, doing my hair, when he shouted, “Deja, does it seem weird to you that we haven’t seen each other naked?”
I took off my towel and paused to look at my body. “No. Not for me. Why?”
“Well, because we spend so much time together and we know so much about each other. Usually when I’m this close to someone, we know what the other person looks like naked, that’s all.”
When I came back to the kitchen, the sexual tension in the room was thick. There was often tension like that between Oscar and me.
He left quickly, but turned around halfway down the walk and told me I looked good standing there. “Come back, then,” I said, too quietly for him to hear. And when he asked what I said, I said nothing.
Early the next morning, I thought of a scene in the book The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings. A boy, Jody, raises a deer from a fawn; it’s his best friend in his rural, isolated life. When the deer gets older and starts eating the family’s crops, his father insists the boy take the deer out into the woods and shoot it. But once he’s in the wild, Jody loses his nerve and treks to the nearest neighbor, hoping they can help him find a way to keep the deer. Jody bursts in and asks them (I’m paraphrasing here):
“What would you do if you had a pet that you really loved, but your dad told you to take it out and shoot it because it was eating your crops?”
The father answers: “Can’t starve. If I had to shoot it, I’d shoot.”
Thinking about the scene, I realized: The only thing that mattered is that I promised I wouldn’t have sex before I got married. And I can’t break that promise. I mean, I could. People do. But I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.
I know my situation seems different from Jody’s because no one’s going to starve if I decide to have sex before I get married. In a way, I’m starving precisely by keeping my promise. But it’s nothing compared to the way I’d starve without that relationship, the way I’d feel if I broke my promise. Promise is the wrong word. It’s deeper than that. We call it a covenant.
Which is not to say I don’t wish I had never promised. Sometimes I’ll get into my car to go home for the night after Oscar and I have watched a movie or had a long conversation, and I’ll wish I never told God that I wouldn’t. But there aren’t any breaks. This is my life. I have to shoot, so I shoot.
Last summer, a stray cat adopted me, then turned out to be pregnant, the sides of her skinny frame swelling out into a hard globe. One day I heard her crying and found her underneath the neighbor’s porch with her kittens in a damp heap.
I couldn’t leave them. I found a box and Oscar lifted them into it while I held an umbrella over the operation. The mama cat tried to reclaim them by the scruff of their necks and put them back in her nest. Once they were settled, I was moved by the sight of the little family in my space.
It was hard for me to sleep with her clan in the corner of my bedroom. Whenever she bathed them or inadvertently sat on their small heads, they squealed like piglets. But it was more than the noise. Once I propped myself on an elbow to watch, and all four babies were attached to her side in a row. She stretched her paws out above the subtle nodding of their heads, spread out her claws, and purred like a go-cart.
I had this odd impulse to tear all of their suckling mouths away from her nipples, to scatter the family. I couldn’t figure out why I was having violent thoughts about kittens until I got up to get some warm milk and Tylenol PM. As I walked back to my bed, she followed me with her green eyes and I realized I was jealous of the damn cat.
I kept the mother and one of her babies, and although I’m loath to admit it, those cats have become a sort of family for me. I discuss important subjects with them, ask them how they’re doing, all the typical cat lady stuff. Last Christmas, I paid for them to come with me to Utah. While all of my siblings’ children ran around, the object of their attention and affection was my cats. It was almost like I finally had kids.
On the way back to Mississippi, I had both cats in a single carry-on. Standing at the gate, I watched a family behind me say good-bye. A man kissed his wife, then bent down to kiss his two kids. They clung to him. His wife was stoic, as was he. When he carefully pulled his kids off his arm, they started screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! No, no, Daddy!”
I’m no good at talking to strangers, and I’m always sort of proud of myself when I think of something to say, so I turned around and said, “Looks like you have a pretty impressive fan club there.”
“The army is shipping me off to Iraq,” he answered. “I’ll be gone for a year and a half.” I could see tears in his eyes then. His voice cracked a little. He was trying hard not to lose it.
My right arm was holding the carry-on with cats in it. It was suddenly very heavy. I knew I was supposed to say something, but I didn’t have any idea what. I turned around and said, as sincerely as I could, “I’m very sorry.” We made our way down the jetway, me with my bag of cats, and this man walking behind me, emotional, quiet. I had been thinking of my pets as children the entire month I had been in town. Now that seemed absurd.
We boarded the plane. Several times throughout the flight I leaned down, opened the carry-on just enough to pet one cat or the other, tugging their ears between two fingers, telling them, calmly, we were almost there.
Deja Earley is a poet, essayist, and editor. She ended up marrying Oscar after all, and they now live in Boston. Excerpted from Ruminate (Winter 2011–12), a quarterly literary magazine that chews on “the complexity and truth of the Christian faith.”