Never Have I Ever
December 5, 1999
The lights of the hotel swimming pool glow turquoise as we tread water in our one-pieces. For my fourteenth birthday, my mother has rented us a room at the Holiday Inn off Shackleford Road. She lies, watching television and smoking Tareyton 100s, on the queen-size bed in the room adjoining ours. We girls have stuffed ourselves with cheese pizza before putting on our bathing suits and braving the chill.
We cannot play Never Have I Ever. None of us has ever done anything, at least not anything sexual, which is what the game is designed to reveal. If one of us had, the others would know about it. We have gone to the same small private school for almost ten years.
So instead we play the game in the subjunctive: Never Would I Ever.
Wendy is perched on the concrete edge of the pool, pointing and flexing her toes into the heated water. She likes to ask the questions in this game. She narrows her dark eyes at me. “Would you let Blake Francis go up your shirt?”
“No!” we shriek, laughing and splashing her. Blake Francis is chubby and talks with his mouth full at lunch. I think of his peanut-butter-and-jelly breath, his sticky fingers on my flesh. I dip below the surface in an attempt to wash the image from my mind.
When I emerge, Wendy is asking the other girls if they would let Shep Downing put his hand down their jeans. Wendy has freckles and frizzy hair, and all her features seem to be located in the middle of her face. She does not shave her legs, and she still talks a kind of redneck baby talk, drawing out her “i”s to sound like “ah”s. Although she turned fourteen two months earlier, she has never admitted to getting her period. Even her feet are babyish, without a single callous.
I have been getting my period for nearly four years now, since the summer after fourth grade. I have been picturing boys’ hands on me for nearly as long. I fall asleep at night thinking of imaginary boyfriends and their hands on my body. But of course to Wendy’s question (re: Shep Downing and my dungarees) I say, “Not me, I wouldn’t.”
“I would never let anyone do that,” proclaims Jess. “At least not until I was married.” Jess is slim and tall, with glasses and a mouth that is too large for her face. The water only comes up to her waist. Her long fingers pat the surface of the water as she speaks. Many of us nod in agreement. We identify as Christians, attending Southern Baptist and Bible churches that condemn premarital sex, along with underage drinking and Dawson’s Creek.
I, too, am planning on waiting until marriage to have sex, but only in a vague, perfunctory way: I have never kissed anyone, or held hands, or had a boy like me.
Cassandra admits she would let a boy go down her pants. “Of course you would,” I say, although with her pasty skin and back acne, I cannot imagine that anyone would be tempted to.
Wendy rolls her eyes and asks her, “What wouldn’t you do, Cassandra?”
“Never would I ever…” She thinks for a moment, staring at the night sky as she bounces from one foot to another in the pool. “Vandalize a piece of property.”
We look back and forth at each other in amusement – What the hell is she talking about? Doesn’t she understand the point of this game? – before exploding into laughter.
“Why would you even say that?” Wendy asks.
“Yeah,” Jess says. “It’s like, ‘Never would I ever cheat on my taxes.’”
“Never would I ever jaywalk!”
Our hilarity fills the pool area, in all likelihood waking the hotel guests. We continue the game – the real one not Cassandra’s PG version – laughing and trading hypotheticals. We make promises as children that our adult selves will never be able to keep.
5 December 2005
My flatmates and I are pre-gaming with a kind of punch we have begun referring to as “the Fatal Bowl.” The Formica tabletop gets sticky as we ladle the lemony booze mixture into whatever vessel is handy – shot glasses, tea mugs, Nalgene bottles.
Twelve of us share this kitchen. I am the only American. Everyone else teases me for saying cell phone instead of mobile; candy instead of sweet; commercial instead of advert.
Without meaning to be, Sinead has become our ringleader. She is not very slim, or particularly beautiful, but she is warm and kind and never syrupy, and we all seem to gravitate towards her. Her mother is Irish, but she is from Kingston, near Wimbledon. It is her idea to play “I Never,” which I call “Never Have I Ever,” and Liam from Ipswich calls “Ten Fingers.”
In junior high, the game was simply a platform to trade woulds and wouldn’ts, an opportunity to talk about sex when we were not wholly comfortable doing so. Now, at eighteen and nineteen and twenty years old, it has become a drinking game, too.
Sinead begins, of course. “I never slept with a woman.”
The guys in the room smile, and take a drink. None of the girls do.
Next to go is Liam, who at twenty-six is older than the rest of us. He is sweet when he is sober and a beast when he is not. Last night he got so drunk he threw Lara’s miniature Christmas tree out our eleventh-story window. He made the punch tonight. “Well,” he says after putting down his shot glass. “I never slept with a man.”
The girls all drink to this. Back in the States, some of my friends are still virgins, or claim to be. None of my friends here are. This is their first semester away from home, whereas I completed my freshman year at college before applying to spend the semester abroad. Still, we are all new to campus, and these uncharted waters (the gym, the laundry, the Hippodrome night club) seem to put us all in the same boat – the HMS Flat 11, sailing into the unknown!
Now it is my turn, and I say that I have never slept with anyone blond. Which is true, if you don’t count oral. I have been with, as in had sex with, two people: my college boyfriend, and Sam.
Sam and I began sleeping together during our first week here. His father is Armenian. Sam is shorter than I am, with green eyes. His room is on the other end of the hall. That night, he lay in my bed with his head in my lap, until both my feet tingled with pins and needles. I stroked his hair, so short it felt like velvet. Finally, timidly, I rocked his shoulder to wake him. “You should probably go back to your room now,” I murmured. He sat up violently, then sprinted back to his own room without saying goodnight.
The next morning, wearing his navy dressing gown, he taught me to love tea.
We have done it intermittently since. We are keeping it a secret, or at least we think we are. I don’t know if it is a real secret, or a widely known secret. Something we only pretend we are hiding.
The other week was Thanksgiving. I forced everyone to gather around the Formica and say what they were thankful for. Sam said he was thankful for East Enders. Later, in his bed, he whispered, “What I’m really thankful for is you.”
The group is still drinking, and Big Tom says he has never had a threesome, but then he takes a shot to show that, yes, he has had one. Lara says she has never had sex in her parents’ house. We name places we have, places we haven’t. In a car. On a bus. We drink and drink and drink.
It is Sam’s turn. He is wearing his cream-colored hoodie with brown lettering across the chest. He tells the group, “I have never had sex with anyone who lives in Flat 11.” He looks at me.
We grin. We drink.
December fifth, two thousand and ten
It’s everyone’s first visit to Sabine and Liza’s new place. They moved in together last month. I have spent most of this evening helping Liza in the kitchen. I can tell she wants everything perfect and that it annoyed her when Sabine volunteered to drive half the party guests to the gas station for cigarettes. Their apartment building is a new construction, as is their relationship, and the beige furniture seems a little too big for the rooms.
Now Sabine has returned and is getting louder – funnier, ballsier –the more she drinks. The hors d’oeuvres have been picked over, and we have settled in the living room, some of us sitting on the floor because there are not enough seats. We’re playing this game once again.
I start. “I have never had sex in a boat.” Except I have, so I drink, thereby incriminating myself.
It seems I am the only one who has had sex in a boat.
James is seated across from me, also on the floor, legs crossed Indian-style, his jeans riding up to reveal sockless ankles. I heard him come in, or rather heard everyone say, “Heeeey, it’s Jameson!” sometime after the cigarette run. It’s the first time I have seen him in months, and I suspect he’s got a woman somewhere. That, or he is avoiding me. One of the two. Possibly both.
Sabine asks if anyone has ever had sex in public. She is curvy with dark, waist-length hair, and it is easy to see why Liza, taut and petite and severely high-strung, loves her. Sabine’s warmth is the reason we are here. Sometimes I catch myself calling her Sinead.
We list the places we have done it:
On a picnic table in a deserted park (James).
In a construction site after hours (me).
One of those airport trains that takes you from one terminal to another (Sabine and Liza, last month, apparently).
We trade secrets. We force intimacies. This is the way we make friends as adults.
One guy – I don’t know his name – says he has never had a threesome. I think of the Flat 11 and wonder if there are only so many things we can name without repeating, only so many options when it comes to loving and making love.
James says he has never had sex with anyone without knowing their name. A few people drink, but I am not one of them. This, for some reason, embarrasses me: I have known all my lovers’ names.
It’s back to me now. James still has not met my eye. I say, “I’ve never had sex with anyone I didn’t love.” It might be the first time I have told the truth in this game since I started playing it in the eighth grade.
There is a collective sigh. Liza lays her head on Sabine’s shoulder. Finally, the man whose name I do not know says, in what I think is supposed to be a Bronx accent, “Well, doesn’t that just break your heart?” And the spell is broken.
I get up for another beer. The game continues with the usual questions of who and where and how many. James follows me into the kitchen, stares me down.
I notice his black sweater is fraying at the hem, that his hair is dirty, that he needs a shave. The first time I met him I wanted to draw him a scalding bath and scrub him like a black domestic might have scoured a white toddler. Later, under his sweater, I learned the secret of the hair on his back, forming auburn wings beneath his shoulder blades.
He asks me, “Did you mean it?” It is clear my confession has not softened him towards me. I wonder if he hates me now, if he hates everyone he sleeps with, after. If that is why he asked me not to tell anyone.
I say, “No, of course I didn’t mean it.” Then, “So what if I did?”
James shakes his head, frustrated, then looks at the ceiling, speaking over my head as usual. “It’s like you think we’re bound by this secret or something.”
He’s right: I do think it. That the sex has connected us, but the secret has connected us more. I carry the secret inside my mouth, roll it around on my tongue.
I say, “I was just playing the game.”
And that, in its way, is also true.