By H.L. Heaberlin
I like to think of myself as a woman of the world, confident in myself and unapologetic about the decisions I make about my relationships and my body. If I want a second or third cookie, I don’t feel like I have to justify it. I don’t care if my older, more conservative relatives see all of my angry Facebook ranting about how birth control needs to be affordable and accessible. If my mom calls me about something on a Saturday morning and I’ve slept over at my boyfriend’s place, I don’t pretend otherwise.
But, as much as I want to be a totally sex-positive, cool, self-possessed feminist who does not give a fuck about what people think about me and my choices, there is one act that still catches me up.
Or, to be entirely accurate, buying condoms in conjunction with anything else. Standing in Target with nothing in my basket but condoms sends a pretty neutral message: I plan to use these condoms in a condom-like fashion, for things that require condoms. An otherwise empty basket implies that the condoms it holds are for good, honest boning. I’m okay with the cashier knowing this about me. But once I add anything else to that basket, I start to feel like everyone around me is judging me.
This week has been hotter than hell, and I’ve been getting over a cold. So I went out to buy popsicles and cough syrup. While I was in the general medicine section, it occurred to me that, since I was already out, it would behoove me to pick up some condoms.
I didn’t think much of it until I got in line at the checkout and set my basket on the counter. As the cashier lifted out my box of banana-flavored popsicles (my favorite) and the bottle of maximum-strength Robitussin, I was suddenly overcome with dread that she was going to think that all of these things were related. In that moment I had gone from cool and in control to absolutely convinced that this woman was going to run, yelling, to the break room to inform all of the other Target employees that there was a girl out front who had obviously stopped in to pick up supplies for her Robotripping-Popsicle-Kink-Orgy and they should all hurry out to point and laugh.
All it took was one trip to Target for errands that had a slightly more PG-13 theme than my usual basket of Greek yogurt and cheap spoons to replace the spoons that I keep losing at work, and I was no longer a cool, confident young woman. I felt like I did the first time I’d ever seen a Cosmo sex-tip article.
I’d just turned 16, and somehow wound up celebrating by being one of the handful of designated drivers at a party I’d only sort of been invited to. After getting myself a glass of flat, warm Coke, I was swept into a group of giggling drunk people, circled around an older girl with a stack of Cosmos. The moment I sat down in the circle, she barked out a laugh and handed one of the battered magazines over to me.
I remember being terrified of taking it from her. As though making the choice to hold and read this magazine in front of a group of the “cool kids,” most of whom were stumbling drunk on Seagrams and Sprite, would announce to everyone that I was some sort of nymphomaniac deviant, hell-bent on finding new and exciting ways to spice up my depraved nocturnal prowls.
Thankfully, one of the friends who had called a space in my car snatched it out of the girl’s hands with a delighted laugh, dropped it on the carpet between us and started going through the pages one at a time, reading aloud to the small gaggle of people like he was Moses with the tablets fresh off Mount Sinai:
i. Thou shalt have sex with the lights on! Men are visual and don’t share your body-image hang-ups.
ii. Thou shalt get kinky by sucking on a Mentos before going down on him! He’ll love the menthol!
(The third one was the infamous donut tip, which is not the first impression of “adventurous” sex that a somewhat sheltered teenager needs. I was horrified.)
My friend just laughed, declared that he’d never fuck a guy who could fit his dick into a donut hole, and kept flipping. I did my best to laugh along with everyone else, but the existence of the article caused a sort of terrified, doubtful anxiousness both at the thought that people, adults, did this sort of thing behind closed doors and that, someday, I might be expected to do it too.
This was a few years before internet porn became something that the people around you just knew how to get, and everything I knew about sex was either from very clinical descriptions given to entire classes by blushing teachers who tried very hard not to gesture when they spoke, or from movies. In class, faceless diagram people stood next to each other and asked you to label their junk correctly. In movies, sex was driven by the heat of the moment and was communicated mostly in odd facial expressions or squeaking bedframes.
This donut and breath mint nonsense didn’t seem to fit into either category. It required a lot of forethought, grocery-list space and presumably, a pause in the action while I retrieved the donut from the kitchen. The next article in the magazine was about exercises to get rid of belly fat. The donut seemed to make that harder, too. This sex thing, thought 16-year-old me, seemed to be a lot more work and involve a lot less romance than I had been led to believe. Also, I didn’t even like donuts.
Basically, I resented Cosmo, because they seemed to be asking a hell of a lot from me. I wouldn’t kiss a boy for another few months. I wouldn’t drink for another couple years, and I probably would have been surprised to learn just how much longer it would be before I was standing in Target with a basket that included, amongst other things, a box of condoms.
I made my face totally neutral as the cashier pulled out what suddenly seemed like the biggest, purplest, Durex-iest box of anything, ever, and started preparing justifications in my head of why a nice young woman might be buying these three things together. But the cashier gave no indication that she in anyway cared about my phallic frozen treat, mild over-the-counter hallucinogenic, and English Raincoat needs. She just rang everything up, bagged it, and told me to have a nice day.
Despite a commitment to sexual health, years of liberal arts education, and a lot of years between present me and nervous 16-year-old me, all I could do was give her a nervous reciprocating grin and run for the bus, eternally grateful that I hadn’t bought donuts.
H.L. Heaberlin is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist. When she was growing up she wanted to be a dolphin trainer, or Rachel from Animorphs, but instead has taken a circuitous route through seamstressing, car sales, and financial advising, and wound up in arts administration. She doesn’t know how that happened, either.