(Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2014)
Before I understood what it meant to be in love, I was afraid of sex. At school, I learned sex before marriage meant risking pregnancy or catching a disease. At home, there was the Catholic bonus of damning my eternal soul to hell. Young love burns bright, but the allure of teenage sex also stems from it being forbidden. The ceaseless popularity of YA vampire fiction runs hot on this fact. The Virgins evokes a similar sense of sexual awakening accompanied by heightened danger, but not because Pamela Erens’ erotically charged novel is filled with vampires. Spoiler alert—it is not. Here, the peril that saturates the prose isn’t supernatural, or transmittable, but is frighteningly inherent to the act of giving yourself over to another person physically and emotionally. Everyone remembers their first time, even if the experience is something they’d rather forget.
Set in 1979 at an elite East Coast boarding school, The Virgins focuses on three students locked in a love-triangle—one that doesn’t hinge on who will get the girl but on if any of them will survive the carnal torment they inspire in each other. Aviva, the newcomer to Auburn Academy, works hard to project a wild girl demeanor but, fiercely guarded, she is unable to give in to the abandon she craves. Her boyfriend, Seung, is a star athlete, a rebel who experiments with drugs to get out from under the thumb of his immigrant parents. Completing the triangle is Bruce Bennett-Jones, their voyeuristic classmate who stalks Aviva and Seung’s love story with a subversive, and ultimately destructive, sense of entitlement.
Bennett-Jones acts as the novel’s main narrator, and although he is obsessed with Aviva, he knows next to nothing about her. Instead, he constructs a fantasy Aviva out of his own needs and desires. His unreliable, and often despicable, narration is deliciously uncomfortable as it deftly underscores how often the partners we create in our mind fail us in the flesh.
The Virgins evokes a longing for that youthful time gone by when making-out for hours was enough to thrill and satisfy. Desiring nothing more than the intoxicating potency of touch and being touched. However, Erens’ vivid portrayal of her characters’ sexual awakening reminds us that this fresh excitement is also accompanied by the crippling fear of failure:
We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body, as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being anointed, saved, transfigured. To fail at it – to do it wrong – was to experience (and please do not smirk; try to remember what it was like, once upon a time) the death of one’s ideal soul.
There is no baggage, yet, or boredom—just horrifying exposure to another person. Your first time is your first time, but it is also a shared experience. What else are you giving away along with your virginity?
Something in her repels him. She knew it, she knew it. Seung believes that he wants her, but his body tells the truth. She puts her nails to her face, pulls at her hair, but even this kind of abandonment she is incapable of: she does not want to scar herself. Even in despair she is self-protecting.
Seung holds her. The shame is his own; he can’t understand why she carries on so. He’s failed. It is the feeling most familiar to him.
Nothing about sex is simple. Reading The Virgins, I wanted to dive into the text, shake these tortured teenagers, and tell them that one day this all won’t seem so dire. At the same time, it made me miss kissing for hours, fueled by limitless anticipation. Maybe we so often try to scare teenagers away from sex with tangible dangers like pregnancy, disease, and hell (which is quite tangible if you are Catholic) because it is easier than trying to vocalize the harsh complexities of intimacy. There is nothing supernatural in Eren’s novel. Instead, what makes The Virgins so haunting is the dangerous reality of how our first sexual encounters can shape, and often damage, us for life.
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Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons’s work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Liars’ League NYC, Serving House Journal, Hypertext Magazine, and HiLoBrow. An award-winning playwright and alum of the Writers Boot Camp screenwriting program, she co-wrote the web series Intersection. She combined her love for theater and writing to create No, YOU Tell It! (www.noyoutellit.com) – a series that supports storytellers as they strengthen their true-life tale on the page and experience someone else’s story on the stage.