Withdrawal is a survival tactic … Nicole Hardy felt trapped by the conventions of her religion.
"Sex isn't everything," my mother says lightly, from the kitchen of my new condo. She means to be encouraging. But I stiffen against her words, as if to defend myself. I've heard it too many times from too many people – that sentence, so reductive it's offensive.
How easy it is for my mother, who married at 20, to dismiss what she's never lived without. I can't help but feel she's being purposefully dense, simply refusing to consider anything beyond the surface. My ﬁrst impulse is a ﬁerce rush of frustration – the urge to roll my eyes, shout a blistering, condescending "no shit" in the direction of the kitchen, where she's unpacking boxes. Obviously, the problem is not just the absence of sex. Obviously, there are more complex issues at the heart of my unplanned celibacy.
When I turn to meet my mother's eyes, I work hard to keep my voice from veering into sarcasm. "Do you think I'd be a virgin at 33 if I thought sex was everything?"
As if on cue, the CD we've been listening to reaches the last notes of the ﬁnal track. The silence in the room highlights the trepidation we both feel. "I know you're struggling," my mother says, resting her hands on the counter. An impotent kind of energy is humming around her. She wants to help me, I know. She's trying. For the ﬁrst time, she's asking.
Seconds pass before I trust my voice not to waver, before the burn in my throat subsides. "I don't know how to ﬁx it." Ashamed by even that admission, I hold in the heaviest secret, the sentence that frightens me at night. "I don't know how much longer I can live like this," I say ﬁnally, half hoping my mother won't hear.
The Mormon Church is a system of absolutes. There is only one right way to live. One complete truth. Either I believe the doctrine of my church was revealed by God to a living prophet, or I don't. And if I believe, I must live the way I've been commanded. I must endure to the end. If I am ﬂoundering, drowning, or desolate, my faith should be the solution.
I can feel my mother's fear from across the room, the exaggerated stillness of her body. How can I tell her that over the past two years I have willed myself into depression? The relief of numbness, that saving grace. How can I say I am glad to feel myself withering? That I can almost stop needing what I can't have if I don't allow myself to feel anything.
If I say no, sex isn't everything – those mechanics, that act – but it affects everything, she will say, "Be faithful." If I say that sex casts a monstrous shadow over my life – the visceral wanting of it, the religious sanctions against it, the looming threat of disfellowship or excommunication, and the damaging ways I've devised to resist it – she will tell me to follow the prophet's counsel, and that of his apostles.
If I say sex keeps me from getting near enough to a man to fall in love, because non-members are the ones who want me and I can no longer trust myself around them. If I say I'm unmarriageable in the Mormon community; if I say the crisis of celibacy is a crisis of isolation, that I am wrong in both places, judged by both sides, she will tell me to wait for my spiritual reward. "Look to the afterlife," as if this life means nothing.
There will be no way to respond that isn't sacrilege. No prophet or apostle has lived a celibate life, is what I'd like to tell her. No one who's told me celibacy is a viable option has ever been celibate. They don't even use the word. They say "abstinent", which implies there will be an end. They don't consider what my life will be like if I never marry. Which is likely, given who I am, and the ways I'm different. People stand at the pulpit or they come to my house and tell me not to need what every human needs. Afterwards, they go home and undress. They lie next to the person they love most, or once did. When they reach across the bed, someone is there.
The ship outside my window has travelled all the way from China. I imagine it's full of laptops, T-shirts, lipstick or toys; I imagine a crate full of telephones or headphones – some advanced technology that could help my mother hear me. Make her understand. One of the apostles warned against withdrawing from others. "Such retreat," he said, "may ultimately lead to the darkening inﬂuence of the adversary, which leads to despondency, loneliness, frustration." He's got it backward, I remember thinking.
Withdrawal is a survival tactic. Because if I can't get numb enough, if I can't withdraw far enough from my body and the need to feel human, I will end up clinging to a stranger on a deserted beach, again. I will ﬁnd myself tangled in the arms of another somebody, anybody. It will be some weary, medicinal surrender that destroys everything. One moment of weakness is all it would take to make myself a hypocrite, or a failure.
I open my mouth to explain but there is nothing I can say. I listen, instead, to the steady crash of waves against the seawall. And my mother's voice, which sounds as if it's coming from far away. "Everyone has trials, honey. You just love God. You keep the commandments and you say your prayers." She turns back to the dishwater as if that is all that needs to be said.
We stop for takeout at the restaurant where we had our ﬁrst real date, then back to my place to pop the champagne. I kick off my shoes and Scott lays his jacket across the arm of the couch. He untucks his shirt, rolls up his sleeves in preparation for our carpet picnic. There are chocolates and music. There is ﬁrelight, which inspires Scott to read aloud from The Cosmo Kama Sutra.
"The Sexy Scissor," he says in a deep, affected radio voice. "No other love lock will offer you such a body-rockin' range of sensations." "Sick." I cover my mouth, laughing. "I can't believe you just said, 'body-rockin' range of sensations'."
The comedic horror show of this book is the perfect read-aloud – a ridiculous, hilarious turn-on. "Take off your dress," Scott says, holding aloft the champagne bottle. "I'm going to pour this all over you." I think he's kidding, until he does it.
When he decides it's time, Scott leads me into the bedroom. I burst into laughter, turn around, and lead him out of the bedroom. We lie back down in front of the ﬁre. "Say when you're ready," he says, and we kiss ourselves breathless. Eventually, I stand up and hold my hand out to him.
Back in the bedroom, Scott stands looking at me until I take a step towards him. He reaches for the tie keeping my robe closed. We are on the bed then and when the moment comes, as it has in the nights leading up to this - when both of us are ready, when it feels imminent and welcome – when one of us usually stops and shouts, "Danger!" neither of us does. It is a simple thing, this coupling. It is effortless, and yet it takes my breath.
I feel myself opening in every way there is to be vulnerable to another. Let him break my heart, if he will. Let this be a mistake, if it turns out to be. But enough of living on the brittle surface, enough of keeping myself numb, alone and half-dead from fear.
We ﬁnd our rhythm among prisms cast from the chandelier, and there is none of the pain I've been told to expect, none of the awkwardness or discomfort. No guilt, no self-consciousness about my inexperience, no loss of self-respect. What I feel instead is something akin to grace. A homecoming.
I'm ﬁrst to fall asleep, lulled into dreams by a hazy afterglow, champagne and the warmth of Scott's body curled around me. Even before he retrieves the covers, I've drifted into a new state of spirit and mind - where not much, and yet everything, is changed.
Edited extract from Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin by Nicole Hardy, published by Allen & Unwin, $28, available now.