Rites of Passage

Spin the Bottle. Photo credit: Flickr user atsealevel.

I’ve been asked to explain a bit about the personal essays I often contribute to this blog. I wrote most of them for the popular “Readers Write” feature in my favorite literary magazine, The Sun. Each month they propose a topic like “Rites of Passage” and invite readers to contribute their own stories. Of the submissions they receive—sometimes as many as a thousand—they publish the most interesting. An abridged version of this essay appears in the current print edition of The Sun (June 2011).

Rites of Passage
By John Unger Zussman

In seventh grade, my peer group began to play kissing games at parties. Spin the Bottle, Seven Minutes in Heaven—tame stuff, in retrospect, but to me it seemed intimidating and immoral and I wanted no part of it. Entering adolescence shortly after my father died, I had no adult male hand to guide me. (I did have an older friend who breathlessly explained that babies resulted when the boy peed into a little hole in the girl. I knew that couldn’t be right.)

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in girls; I was desperately interested, and spent many nights agonizing over how to get them to like me. No, it was sex I wasn’t interested in, even when I got the story straight. I had absorbed a strict moral code from my mother and was convinced that sex before marriage was wrong. I was after girls’ admiration and love, and I believed I would win that by respecting them.

I didn’t leave the parties when the games began; I would simply not partake. For a while, my best friend felt the same way, and we would watch awkwardly from the edge of the circle. But soon, he succumbed too, and I was left to uphold my moral code alone.

(Years later, I asked my mother what she thought of the way I abstained from those games. “I thought you were dumb,” she told me bluntly. Thanks a lot, Mom. Now you tell me. All I needed was someone to explain that girls were sexual beings too, and that they were just as curious about exploring those feelings as I was, if not quite so driven or tormented.)

By the time I started dating in tenth grade, I had decided that kissing, at least, was permissible. My dates and I spent hours necking, in my car or in their living room, at summer camp or youth group retreats. One girl, bored with kissing, urged me to go further. Her previous boyfriend had a serious disease, she explained, that had pushed them into early intimacy. Despite her clear invitation, I was immobilized by impending guilt.

And so the task was left to Wendy, my girlfriend at the beginning of senior year. Exasperated after yet another marathon make-out session, she took my hand and placed it gently on her breast. That act of mercy opened the floodgates, and for that, Wendy, my wife and I are forever grateful.

Copyright © 2011, John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.