It had started like a fairy tale, but, like, one of the lesser fairy tales. One about embarrassed, clammy high-school seniors.
Through three-and-a-half-years of high school I had underwhelmed even myself: a C-average, two fleeting kisses, and the unwavering knowledge that everyone in my class could recall my on-stage vomiting during our sixth-grade play.
Down to our last five months of senior year and—from the popular caste, to the dweebish underbelly, to even the abhorrently ugly lunch table—it seemed that our entire class was coupling up, all of them now seemingly forever basking in their post-coital glows. I, meanwhile, drifted alone and remained grateful that Senior Superlatives hadn’t included a “Most Celibate.”
I never got the chance to screw up tying this flower-thingy.
The short days and a lackluster mid-season TV lineup provided no distractions or relief. It’s tough to remember back to what seems like years ago now, but I think we were actually still invested in the Democratic Primaries.
Mythology class was living up to its senioritis-conducive reputation when, much like every story our aging hippie teacher told, fate intervened and Mr. Sage paired Rachel DeCosta and I together for a semester-long project.
Rachel and I had known each other since I had moved here in second-grade, though she had been a way better student and we hadn’t had many classes together. Her and this guy—Tim something—had been an item for two years. Tim had been a year ahead of us and had hard dumped Rachel last October during his first semester away at college. Our class had sympathized with her for a few days, while compassion had been trendy. I knew little about Rachel beyond this and she knew nothing of me beyond a particular theater incident involving the girl playing Marian slipping on my “nervous energy” and literally breaking a leg. Neither of us wanted to talk about either of these things and so our chitchat began harmlessly, a lot of “I’m so tired today” and “Bernie just gets it, you know?”
Mr. Sage, or as he preferred “River,” had made a habit of forgetting the endings to stories and usually we were given extra class time for work on our projects. Rachel, almost effortlessly, developed this inspired impression of River, quips like, “We’d still be in Vietnam, man, if it hadn’t been for Woodstock.” She could capture his essence in nothing more than holding a spacey-eyed gaze or by softly muttering a wistful, “Jerry.” She also liked good TV, and I realized that I like-liked her.
Like me, she didn’t care for the predictable staleness of the network primetimes and the reality-show cesspool. She, too, was happy to dive into deepest abysses of cable and streaming services to forage out worthy, scripted treasures. These were the cool, indie shows we discussed—and, no, you wouldn’t have heard of them. Please, don’t embarrass yourself.
River saved all the love-heavy epics for the week of Valentine’s Day, including one long, run-on sentence about his experience at Lollapalooza ’94. The whole week Rachel and I played down Valentine’s Day: everything about it was “hollow,” or “basic, ” or “egoistic.” Though on Thursday night, February 13th, against better judgment, I gave in and spent two hours crafting the most aggressively plain, weirdly funny card for her. A caricature of River was involved and the sentiment would have offended any veteran of a foreign war. I handed it to her the next day and invited her over to watch something complex and non-linear.
“It works,” she said after the movie, “It works because it’s so counterintuitive, playing on our paradigm of what typifies a hero.” I kissed her and she kissed me back.
Movie Friday became standard. The menu was usually pizza, moderate bloating, and some light face-sucking in that order. Everything, somehow, had suddenly gone right. Prom Night sex was now the likely destination for this, and probably summer sexing as well. Not outside, of course, but, I’d imagine, from the comfort of an air-conditioned basement futon while something with subtitles played on TV.
March arrived. One Thursday, I remember River had on a full suit for Jack Keroac’s birthday and at the end of the day our principal had announced that there wouldn’t be in-person school for at least the next three weeks due to concerns over COVID-19. “DeCosta,” I said, coy, meeting her at her locker at the end of the day, “movie tonight and tomorrow?” I was over-eager, I’ll admit; our last session of mouth-whoopee had been pretty hot, and had involved some butt touching.
“My Dad texted me,” she said, shaking her head, “He’s been watching CNN all day, and now I have to help him go to Costco to get a year’s supply of ground beef, toilet paper, and greeting cards.” She paused. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“Okay,” I said, kissing her goodbye and thinking nothing more of it. Mildly disappointed, sure. Tomorrow, though, would happen without a problem. This outbreak was definitely serious, but our government and our citizens would act responsibly. The country had been pretty polarized; events, though, of this magnitude and this danger realign everyone’s interests and refocus us onto what really matters. I mean, we might all be different people, but we were all against preventable death, right?
Nowhere in my mind did I think there was a possibility that a bat, or whatever, flapping its pestilent wings somewhere in China could cause an insurmountable roadblock for me to lose my virginity.
Of course there wasn’t Movie Friday. Not the next day, and not ever again. My parents, too, were not willing to take any chances. Rachel’s dad hadn’t slept in two days—he said that was when the 5G will get you. Rachel said he wouldn’t trust anyone not living under his roof, his protocols, and his germ and satellite barriers. I would replay our last exchange at her locker at least once a day now, wishing I’d done anything different.
Graduation, and Prom were all cancelled a few weeks later. Rachel played it down. The mythology project and the in-person school year, too, was scrapped. Really, any other monumental dates in which intercoursing might have happened were postponed and eventually nixed. “Maybe we could go to the park, wipe down a bench, watch something?” I suggested once, willing to brave my distaste for the outdoors. She said her dad was the only one allowed to leave their property, and it was only when he’d read message board rumblings regarding new shipments of toilet paper and raw beef at various upstate grocery stores. “What if we just snuck out, you and me?”
“I want to, I really do, but we have to do our part,” Rachel said. “Social responsibility. Remember, like Bernie would say?”
I sighed. “Yes. Of course. Bernie.”
“We don’t want this to become like Italy, right?”
“No. You’re right.” If I had lived in Italy, I thought, I wouldn’t be in the pickle. Sure, my country would have had been on lockdown and physicians would have faced stomach-churning medical ethics decisions, but I’m positive that growing up there I would have already had sex, probably in some sort of state-sanctioned, hedonistic, egalitarian orgy at fourteen or fifteen.
The weather warmed up and the infection data was seemingly improving. Then the country was gripped by a horrific string of racial injustices and violence. Speaking on anything other than hopeful solutions or expressing compassion for the victims now felt insensitive, particularly if one was speaking on topics like personal sexual desires.
Graduation happened over Zoom. People drove by our house honking and even more plastered recycled sentiments all over social media. The obnoxiousness overshadowed anything that might have been sincere. Rachel’s dad, meanwhile, had turned their breakfast nook into a small shrine to Governor Cuomo.
There was no shortage of blame—from the president, to his Fauci-undermining lemmings, to every American who claimed that it was his or her birthright and the purest form of liberty to sit in their favorite bar, sans-mask, and drink margaritas. I may have been smart enough to know good TV, but I was completely lost on who exactly should shoulder the most responsibility for me not having sex yet.
Rachel mentally checked out by late June and no longer cared about any loose ends around here. Her entire focus was on moving to Ithaca in September, starting classes, and being free from toilet-paper rations and indefinite meatloaf.
Her and I didn’t talk much now. Any carnal momentum was long gone. This isn’t network primetime where some ludicrous string of good luck and gratuitous altruism allows us one more chance at what we lost (during Sweeps, of course). The real world is more like deep cable where every decision is governed by chaos and fear. Speaking of which, I’ll be attending online classes this fall at my safety school, a school whose second biggest selling point was their new commuter lot annex. I’ll have the college experience from the comforts of my parents’ den: virtual classes, virtual labs, and virtual keggers.
When the aforementioned puke puddle had sidelined Marian, the big dance-off finale between her and the Mayor couldn’t be performed. Our teacher had written and insisted upon this new ending, and our cast had never practiced anything else. “The Music Man,” now, had no choice but to abruptly stop. The confused audience of parents sat for a beat after the final curtain fell before overenthusiastically applauding. Most seemed content that it was over and never once questioned if Harold Hill was doomed to spend the rest of his whimsical days in an Iowa prison.
Rachel and I are still both COVID-19-free. We’re still living fifteen blocks apart for a few more weeks. Our story, or fling, is now just one of those embarrassing fairy tales where the author became tired of writing and figured no one would want to read it anyways—mostly because nothing was happening, and because there wasn’t nearly enough sex.