It was New Year’s Eve 1997. I was 18 years old and had a serious band crush on Radiohead, pined for the late Jeff Buckley. Later that year I would graduate and leave our small town for the wide world.
I had been invited to celebrate the new year in Hannover with my old friend Jan and his buddies. Jan’s parents were out of town celebrating with my parents somewhere in the mountains, and so we have a fun night planned out. I was drinking a sweet pre-mixed Piña Colada and enjoyed starting conversations with provocative topics like why I think men should be allowed to hit women if women were allowed to hit men. I never used the term feminist, but I very much detested the idea that a woman would be considered the weaker sex and in need of protection. The most heated and flirtatious debate unfolded with Chris, a blond haired guy that reminded me of Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys. We smiled at each other a lot and when it was time to go outside to watch the excessive amounts of fire works in the neighborhood, he grabbed my hand. Later back inside, when we were all sitting around on couches talking, we were still holding hands, but now it made me feel uncomfortable. I regretted flirting with him earlier and quietly withdrew my hand. He looked at me with surprised disappointment, but asked no questions. After 45 minutes of hand holding no hearts are broken.
It would be another 11 years until I held hands again with another boy.
This fact is as baffling to me as it is to anyone. And I am still trying to figure out what exactly caused this long period of celibacy that often still makes me feel like I wasted my best years. It might not be surprising then that in my thirties I felt the urge to explore all the facets of casual dating that I had been avoiding for so long. I think there were two reasons for the radical romantic isolation in my twenties. One was my new found fear of God, the other was my fear of intimacy.
My first boyfriend at 16 could arguable be classified as the coolest guy in school; formerly a skater/pot dealer with long red hair, he was one of the best violin players in our orchestra. At our school, to meet the cute guys, you learned a classical instrument. Sebastian was sweet and smart and gave me all the time in the world before we had sex. I was madly in love and thought there was a good chance I would spend my life with him.
My idea of finding the love of my life was heavily informed by Hollywood plot lines, and also my parents own story. I grew up hearing how they had met on a trip to Romania where they had smuggled bibles into the atheist East bloc. My father knew after two weeks that he wanted to marry the soft-eyed but strong-willed medical student. And although my mother always made a point of highlighting how uncharmed she felt by my dad, the gangly theology major, at first, her reluctance was short-lived and they got engaged some weeks later — 6 months later they were married.
This angle on romantic love was heavily reinforced when I was 19 and spent a gap year in Great Britain with the Baptist Missionary Society, spreading the word of God and being enveloped by an extremely morally conservative mindset. In this world, boys and girls dated with intention, didn’t experiment, waited with sex until marriage and idolized their wedding day. And that’s why I did — thinking this would please God and having the perfect excuse to not open up emotionally to anyone at all. My twenties turned into an academically active, spiritually on fire, but emotionally walled in time. For much of it, I didn't even have close girl-friends, maybe because I knew that they would want to hear all about my dating life, of which there was nothing exciting to tell. If someone did ask why I wasn’t dating, I dug out seemingly self-content statements like, ‘I guess men are just not into me.” And without self-pity I can truly say that almost no men approached me during these 11 years. Because I didn’t let them. Because something was never quite right: he didn’t know enough about postcolonial theory, his nose was a weird shape or he wore his sweaters all wrong… But the most common flaw was: they weren’t born again Christians. And dating an unbeliever was out of the question! Unfortunately for me, the Christian guys mostly bored me to death because I already knew all their answers to all the questions. Drinking only moderately and not taking drugs did very little to encourage wild uncontrollable behavior and overthrow my high standards.
But the strongest wall around my heart wasn’t made of unrealistic expectations, it was the inbred fear in most religious people that negative experiences are actually — negative. The body, the heart and the virginity were to be protected by all means necessary. “The body is your temple.” “Blessed be the pure at heart.” “Whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.” Evangelical pastors encouraged us to emulate meek Jesus, obedient Martha, uncompromising Paul — all of them celibate. We were never urged to seek out the existential experiences of the Old Testament heroes: the adultery of David, the lust of King Solomon, the depression of Job. Even though their biographies have birthed some of the most beautiful poetry, most nourishing wisdom, most captivating stories in late antiquity. But in church we were supposed to protect our hearts, hoping we would somehow get through life without ever having to fight for breath.
I remember once sitting on a church floor in India praying with a group of Christians from all around the world and I was overcome with the weight of the suffering I had witnessed around me. And I cried out to God to tell me why all this suffering was necessary. Why the starving children, why my own starving heart? And I believe the answer I got was this: because redemption is the most sublime experience the human heart can undergo. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. But we need to die to be reborn. It’s all over the bible. Why then are we so afraid of death, of confrontation, loss, hate, betrayal, failure?
I excelled in self-protection, but it left me bored and unfulfilled. Now, as a creative professional I almost believe the opposite, “Nothing bad can ever happen to a writer.” Not that I am actively seeking out horrific experiences, but I’m not surprised anymore when life throws me a curve ball, or I get punched in the stomach. And the very thing that held me hostage and gagged me with shame, my 11 year long celibacy, my 11 year long fear of not being able to love or worthy of being loved, desired, cared for, has become my strongest story.
I’m not quite sure what it was that broke the spell of celibacy for me. Maybe my curiosity about dating was finally stronger than my fear of it. Friendships had taught me more about opening up emotionally. I was desperate for some adventure. I was in Mexico… The guy who gave me my first kiss after 11 years, won me over with his humor, his singing and a crazy plan to fly me from Mexico to his home in Nashville for a weekend. Of course he broke my heart terribly. I’m glad he did. Otherwise I had arrived at film school that same year, with a heart fully intact, innocent, unscathed, and with no stories to tell.