The mouth, carpeted with buds and ticklish as any protected spot, is warmly inviting for a reason. Slipping and sliding inside gives bloom to as many permutations of sense as one of Joyce's metaphors: It's a litmus strip for, say, salty broths, informed by the olfactory, and it teases out texture like fingertips. But the mouth's also a locus of oral sex as my mom defined it for my 'tween bro re Clinton-Lewinsky: "kissing with tongues"as well as a shaft-swallowing, scrotum-tightening sea.
So it is an insult beyond even injury that before many of us first tie tongues as reward for tongue-tied sexual sniffing-out, our most exposed orifice is stuffed with razor-tipped metal bars and industrial-strength rubber bands: the dread orthodontia. My first kiss (with Eileen, my best friend's girl, in his room, in his plain sight)and my countless (endless!) anticipatory fantasieshad the flavor normally associated with lapper-looping a nine-volt battery. Metallic. Acidic, even: the taste less of tension than of squirming-stomach fear; the taste, as it happens, of braces.
I was self-conscious. I never imagined I'd lose the big V to Eileen years later, soon after high school graduation. She was never self-conscious, it seemed: With pearly whites in perfect rows and behind-the-bleachers savvy, possessing ato borrow the mantra from John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse"well-developed figure for her age" merely added a powerful physical component to my desire to get inside, i.e., outside of myself. But by then, all the girls had their future figures: It was ninth grade, and I was the slob who'd never known play.
My Quaker prep academy in Providence wasn't the hotbedin terms of bedding hottiesthat the public schools seemed to be, so Eileen's nearby all-girl campus held theoretical promise like the ladies' locker rooms in Meatballs. Negotiations that she initiated and my best friend (her boyfriend) Stephen brokered resulted in my awkward exhilaration at this plunder, and wonder as to which best interest of mine she had in mind: prep for fix-ups with her picky friends (the official story) or mutual quenching of, uh, all-consuming lust.
Of course, Stephen got the good stuff. But for a few momentsas I tried to hide an at-attention Tiny Elvis while being probed with Eileen's inquiries ("Can you stick it out further?") and one otherwise unattainable tongueanything seemed possible. Except second base. From a cross-legged position on his bedroom floor, busying him-self with some disassembled gadget, Stephen would see the reach for the ta-tas; Eileen would feel his eyes, and my awkwardness would be compounded by the experiencetimes two. My fears and fantasies came to life, as one unit. Talk about a third wheel.
At the end of senior year, it took about two monthsStephen by now her longtime friend, me a self-styled punk rocker and Eileen's incidental beaufor her to even broach the topic of horizontal tango. She was content to wait, more content, it seemed to me, than she'd ever been. But who was I to . . . or just, who was I? Athesensitive guy? "Sucking without fucking's fine," I might've lied (unless I was telling the truth). "I love you, and believe you do me"the "do me" perhaps ringing ironic. But I've never felt bitter, didn't then, only better, still self-conscious but appreciative of now-ex Eileen, as part of myself, and, y'know, someone else. Braces off.
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