We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
The Indiana corn weaves like a maze of chastity. My girlfriend, Becca, and I are driving in my black Subaru Forester, hunting for a solitary space. I am a sophomore in college and am studying the Bible in hopes of entering the ministry. My left hand dictates the steering wheel, while my right hand is clasped to Becca’s manicured fingers. A double-looped, olive scarf and a single chestnut braid contrast her blue eyes, dilated juniper berries that have been expertly framed.
Our relationship began in high school. Although her allure lay somewhere beyond my league, she, the graceful cheerleading captain, and I, the mop-headed metal drummer, found an immediate Eros — one that remains clothed and censored by burgeoning, Christian morals.
Now, we drive as college mates, best friends and eager lovers. There is necking and driving, reckless passion born of young frontal lobes. Our relationship needs a hidden roadside without an audience, where we won’t make love but will dream of doing so. And in the process, press upon ingrained religious and physical boundaries.
It is early October, and the dry cornstalk still stands. Time-worn, dirt roads are masked by seven-foot plants. We would like the vegetation to hide us while we enjoy the back seat, but it only masks the oncoming traffic: Farmers in ancient pick-ups appear out of nowhere, flash their headlights and roll down their windows. “You kids OK?”
I am wary of authoritative eyes in the harvest and the lips that call nakedness shame. My staunch, self-induced morality whispers, “Sex is reserved for the shadows.”
I am reminded of a juvenile angst.
It was a midnight high wire act: arms out for balance, white socks moved heel to toe. Wide pupils were focused on the stair railing to my right, and fretful ears were fixed on the copper hinges on my parent’s bedroom door. The maple floorboards were bubbled, and my twelve-year-old stride activated a creak. It echoed. I froze, then wrenched my neck to the head of the hall and listened for movement. The air sat still. My pastor father and stay-at-home mother remained asleep.
I considered my sixth grade English class and Poe’s light-footed night stalker. But I was not on a murderous search for The Tell Tale Heart — I was a libido-driven, fuzz-stached pre-teen in search of late-night cable boobs.
My family had just moved to the Chicago suburbs from North Carolina. This was my seventh house. Preacher’s families are often blown about the country, tossing God’s Word to the common-people, and receiving a free month of HBO with each new city.
I crept down the stairs, back hunched, knees bent — attempting to lower my center of gravity. Our yellow lab, Caleb, named from the Hebrew for "dog," met me at the ground floor. His tail swayed in anticipation of play; dull claws scratched at linoleum. I pinched his muzzle with my right hand. “Not now,” I whispered. The dog’s brow tilted backward. He let out a muted whimper, promising silence. In sympathy, I let him follow me to the beige-carpeted living room, a companion in the carnal exploration.
The television’s cathode tubes hid behind a forty-inch square of black, bowed glass and rested on a two-foot, red oak cabinet. For months, the TV had prodded my budding hormones. I wasted days by flipping through channels, looking for skin. I would spend a half-hour viewing "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," trying to will the gold-plated bra off of Teela: the long-legged, red-haired Captain of the Royal Guard. I would change the channel to "The Cosby Show" and feel palpable tension between myself and Denise Huxtable, portrayed by the tempting Lisa Bonet. The dreadlocked renegade sported extra-large, cable knit sweaters, leaving everything but her high cheekbones to the imagination.
Conjectured pictures moved in my head: The bare chest of Eve from my Illustrated Children’s Bible was plastered over Teela’s sultry hips — all of this capped by a Huxtable smile. Using the thin, grey remote, I powered the television, expecting to find my fantasy girl gyrating on late-night, premium-cable porn.
The erotic light of channel 501 swallowed the space, and my thumb pressed mute. A pale, blonde female security guard sat alone in a surveillance room: naked. She monitored a video feed of a masked, shirtless burglar. I had seen protruding abdominals like his before on the glistening, blue body of Captain Planet. I stared, bewildered as the woman massaged her tight, left nipple and caressed her inner thigh with petite, red-tipped fingers. She bit at her lower lip with the same euphoric agony as a kid lusting after a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card — “1989 Upper Deck, oh baby!”
I was uncertain as to what the woman was doing or trying to do. But the longer I looked, the warmer I felt. My senses clouded, chest trembled and muscles clenched. My left hand was urged to the fly of my baseball-print pajama pants. A sudden wetness was accompanied by dream-like ecstasy, then a return to perspective with my pulse’s decrescendo.
I powered off the television. There was blackness. I could feel Caleb’s warm pant against my left hip. The dog’s eyes shone green and inserted regret. The experience was unknown and therefore was sin.
Becca winces and my perspective is pulled back to the present car-ride, “You’re crushing my hand.” I apologize and blame a pent-up libido. She leans her shoulders toward the passenger window and fixates on the moonlit fields. “You only care about the physical stuff.” My fingers move to her denim-covered knee, a safer spot to prove a gentle agape.
I speak to her backlit silhouette, “I’m sorry. It’s this place. This school. They make it impossible.”
Taylor University’s 40-foot brick bell tower rises like a stalk from the Indiana corn. The bell tower is split into two columns which meet at a head: a symbol of the integration of faith and learning. The 2,000 students are deeply committed, evangelical Christians. The community is tight and secluded; the campus sits in the middle of a 4,000-resident farm town. In this place, which boasts of conservative roots, there is vocal guilt attached to sex: “Should it actually feel good?”
The wing where I live houses 60 men. Our pleasures are secret. I’ve only seen alcohol here once, have never heard porn through the concrete walls but have a hunch the guy two doors down smoked pot when he went home last weekend. Sin is obsessed upon.
We have a masturbation jar. Each time you get your rocks off, you must stuff a dollar in the jar. God is watching. The jar fills fast. I don’t think they do this at state colleges. A buddy of mine says its alright in God’s eyes to masturbate to inanimate objects, “Just don’t lust after girls.” He’s never kissed one.
Taylor’s academic reputation is strong, but so are its rules. In the 1960s, a handbook was constructed of promoted, Godly conduct, and of restricted behaviors that might lead to sin. The University officials who penned the work named it after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, "Life Together." Bonhoeffer, a radiant theologian, was hanged by the Nazis for planning an assassination of Adolf Hitler and reportedly died a virgin. He showed no regret in missing out on sex, claiming to have lived a full life — although a sexual summary is an unfair judge of the honest man.
Upon signing the Life Together Covenant, students agree to refrain from the following behaviors: dancing, lying, profanity, drinking, smoking, premarital sex, involvement with pornography, homosexual relationships and immodest dress, among others. Refusal to sign the covenant may result in expulsion. While consensus might agree that abstinence, or moderation, from some of the aforementioned actions could promote physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, there is a loss of critical thought in the removal of a student’s free choice to act on, or refrain from, “sin.”
Like an authoritative parent, the University’s sexual mistrust is layered. Dorms are categorized by gender. Men and women are allowed in one another’s rooms twice a week, for four hours. Resident Assistants troll the hallways during visiting hours, like nurses in a psych ward, making sure all lights are on and all doors are open. There is plenty of flirting, but no way to act on it.
Raging hormones are repressed to the backs of minds, where they are interpreted as guilt.
The young women are told that having sex is as painful as labor, while the men place the vagina on an ivory pedestal, of sorts: “I’m going to rail her on our wedding night.” In a community so focused on not having sex, there is much lost in the beautiful intricacies of learning to appreciate the soul and body of a loving partner.
Each fall, the school devotes a week to sexual education. The week’s festivities are referred to as “Sex in the Cornfields.” Men and women fill separate auditoriums where speakers romanticize celibacy before marriage, and outline, via animated PowerPoint slides, ways to reduce and quit masturbation. The term “sex” is thrown around as a ubiquitous catch-all for promiscuous sin, but is never defined. Thus, the sexually illiterate evangelical students develop operational definitions of sex based on their childhood and teenage experiences.
In an effort to define sex, I call upon my own late night, cable-enhanced sixth-grade exploration.
Elementary school sex education videos taught me how to hide a random erection: “Here’s a cool tip, carry your books in front of your penis.” These same tapes showed cartoon testes, with bug-eyed sperm swirling about, chomping at the bit to reach the woman’s high-cheeked, Maybellined egg.
I was twelve and, for two years, had been waiting for a chance to examine real semen, to watch my sperm bounce like guppies. The opportunity had finally arisen. There I stood, dog at my side, holding a fresh, albeit fast-cooling, sample in my pants.
I moved to the kitchen, and trod a wide gate to keep the sperm in place. This was a sleuth mission — the Pink Panther theme song crept from the corners of my subconscious. My parent’s bedroom lay above. The white pantry door was ajar, so it opened with a breath of a push. I scanned past the canned soup, most of it split pea, then found the plastic sandwich bags sitting atop a wire shelf. My hand plucked a bag from the cobalt, cardboard box. This was followed by a soft close of the door. The brass knob’s click was consumed by the darkness.
My sly legs moved to the staircase. I exhorted a whisper at the rustling dog: “Caleb, stay. You’re too loud.” He obeyed and watched me climb toward manhood. I avoided the middle of each step, where the bare wood was likely to groan.
The second-floor hall was as I left it: serene. Although I figured the Holy Ghost and his judging eyes were planted in a dim corner. I slid into my room and flipped the snow-white light switch on. Not wanting to waste precious time, I turned the plastic bag inside out, as I was accustomed to doing when picking Caleb’s poop from the neighbor’s lawn, and reached into the front of my pants. I pulled out a hoard of creamed, buried treasure. With surgical efficiency, I flipped and sealed the bag.
Several thousand loose baseball cards, stacked in eighteen-inch piles atop my honey-cedar desk, were swept to make room for the semen sample. I then rummaged my closet, whose cramped, carpeted floor ramped above the staircase. My hands dug through die-cast cars, a stiff catcher’s mitt, once-lost math worksheets and a battery powered X-wing starfighter; liquid freeze pops, American Girl doll glasses, stale tightie whities and a “Check yes if you like me” note. Then the all-powerful semen-deducing tool emerged: a Wendy’s-brand, Peter Pan magnifying glass.
My eye almost touched the glass, turning it into a monocle of sorts. As the first person to examine my semen, all observations were noted as discoveries. The initial revelation pertained to color. I’d been under the impression that semen was bleach white, but it was more of a linen with a hint of French vanilla. I wondered if my blonde hair affected my semen color. The second detection was of odor. The viscous sample smelled of must — not unlike mildewed baseball pants; I considered a washed uniform to be bad luck. I thereupon became statuesque, with pupils focused on a centimeter-wide portion of the specimen. My eyes were fishing for sperm. In held breath and wishful thought — I swore I saw one move.
A roadside clearing jogs my mind back to the meandering path beside Taylor University. I turn onto a rocky, dim road and ask Becca if she can see any houses. Her vision is better than mine, “I think there’s a house way up there, but it could be a silo. Nothing to worry about. Just pull off here.” I slow the car. Weeds whip beneath the tires. I cut the engine; I turn the lights off. We coincide a sigh and sit for a moment, listening to the wind against the windows. I turn and lean to kiss her, but my seatbelt impedes my progress. She unlocks the belt, then climbs from her chair.
We lay in the backseat, stuck to faux leather, our desires enhanced by the full moon. I am focused on her eyes — not the world outside. She reaches for my jeans.
Suppressed longing escapes.
A heavy thud hits the passenger side window.
I force my body off of Becca, hitting my head on the glass moon-roof. She groans, “Your knee is in my crotch.” I look to the window, ready to appease an angry farmer. But all I see is a cud-chewing, flared-nosed, voyeuristic cow — sent by God to protect my virginity. We laugh, re-assume the upright position, turn the car back on and meander beneath the moon.