Todd Clayton on a romantic experience that changed his perspective on trust, love, and sex.
By Todd Clayton
My co-worker lives above her landlords on the third floor of a single-family home in Astoria. The landlords are from Spain, long-married and newly-retired, and Virginia told me last week that during the summer they host dinner parties in the backyard that she can see from her window. She says they’re drawn-out, utterly-Spanish affairs with music, tapas, so much wine, and (I can’t remember if she said this said this or if I more intuited it) nice patio torches. They start at eight and unfurl with effortless panache ‘til well past midnight, never obnoxiously.
I told her that our downstairs neighbors also have dinner parties but they’re unfortunately very un-Spanish, so much so that on Saturday night I heard someone drunkenly chant “Americaaaaa!” through my wide-open window. It was hot and I couldn’t close it so there I was in my boxers watching Sense8 and smashing the volume-up button on the remote. IN ANY EVENT: she told me about her landlords and I sucked it right up because in less than a month, my fiancé and I are flying to Madrid to visit his dad for two weeks [*joy-crying emoji* *party horn emoji*].
I have been to Madrid exactly once before, for a whirlwind 22 hours on a layover during my flight back to San Diego from Prague. The trip to Prague (plus Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, before that) was absolutely unplanned, and happened only because I stumbled into a free round-trip ticket. It was a gift from the president of my college and his wife after a hellish, hellish senior year (think Dean Withers in Saved!). They told me I could book a flight anywhere in the world, and I was on my way to Heathrow five days later. I quit my job at Barnes & Noble to go.
Thank god I went because I had my first one-night stand in London with this guy I met at a bar in Soho. Someone grabbed my arm while I was ordering a beer and told me I was just her friend’s type, and would I come meet him? We danced, had drinks, and kissed, and I remember telling him I “wasn’t that kind of guy” when he asked me to come over. The words dribbled out, rote, and it took me only a few minutes to realize they weren’t mine anymore.
Before Europe, I was working through the mountainous shame I inherited about sex. From as early as I can remember, sex was tied to the marriage bed and became this tricky gremlin luring people into depravity in any other context. In one particularly troubling youth group exercise, I, along with the other ten boys sitting cross-legged on the floor, was given a red construction-paper heart. We were told a story about a boy who became a man, sleeping with women along the way. When the boy had sex in the story we had to rip a piece of the heart off, because “every time you have sex, you give a piece of yourself away.” By the time the boy in the story met the woman who would become his wife, all we had left was a jagged-edged scrap. “Is this what you want to offer your bride?”
You aren’t born fearing yourself; you have to be taught. I was especially afraid of my own sexuality because it was the cardinal sin church folk had been warning me about for years. I bought myself a purity ring just before I turned seventeen, which symbolized my promise not to have sex until I was married. In a weird-ass, self-hating move, I bought one that was a sterling silver crown of thorns that hurt to take on and off. I mean come ON with the guilt. It has taken years of therapy and healthy sex to unlearn, and even still it creeps up.
As we were rolling around his double bed in London, naked and sweating and trying to remember each other’s names, I realized that I was entitled to a sexual life on my own terms. The church has sacraments (like baptism and communion) that we call “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace,” which is just a fancy way of saying “times when we see God.” I think back on that trip to Europe, almost five years ago now, and I’m able to see it for the genesis that it was: a sacramental, holy time that taught me shame and guilt have no place in my sexual life. One of my greatest sadnesses is that I did not learn this sooner.
“He’s an investment analyst. 24. Beautiful accent,” according to my journal entry from the next day. On the walk to his apartment we kissed in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. “Kind of like the Times Square of London,” I wrote, “quite romantic.” I was feeling my way through the world with all my guideposts smashed to bits. My mind was tumbling, trying to make sense of it all, and the next morning I woke up beside him after not really sleeping. I knew I was going to need to find new people to trust, and a new God, to boot, but hadn’t the slightest idea how. He was snoring quietly and we had sex again before I left. We’re still friends on Facebook.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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