Everyone Who Touches Us Makes Us Who We Are
Mama and other loved ones, though there are no explicit sexual references in this newsletter, there are a few things you might not wish to read.
“You can have the same experience with lots of different people, or you can have lots of different experiences with the same person. I think you can guess which one is better.”
My very first AA sponsor, Seth, said that to me more than 30 years ago, when I asked him for help in staying faithful to my first fiancée. When he said it, I thought something about it didn’t ring right, but I was so hungry for direction I received it as Gospel.
I should have listened to my instincts, but my general feeling at that point in my life was that my instincts were more likely to get me into trouble than out of it.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with an old friend “No matter how many people I sleep with,” she’d said, “they never start to run together in my mind.”
I admitted that I’ve forgotten a great deal, including many of the people I slept with. I don’t know my “number.” But of those whom I do remember, each one stands out as distinct. No two one-night stands were alike, and indeed, one of the most significant friendships of my life turned out to be with a woman I slept with exactly once.
It’s not just that no two bodies are alike, in that smell and taste and touch are always at least slightly different. It’s that even in the most casual encounter, the palpable energy two people create together is unique. Not only is it unique, in my experience we can still feel it as unique, no matter how high one’s number rises.
One of the most tiresome tropes deployed by religious conservatives is the idea that sexual experience will (in addition to imperiling your salvation) make you a jaded mess. They claim that the more bodies you touch, the more mouths you kiss, the more cynical and world-weary you become. They offer a seductive, false, and dangerous premise: that intimacy depends on novelty. The more partners you have, the harder it is to trust; the fewer, the easier it will be to connect deeply.
It sounds intuitive until you live it. Living it suggests the exact opposite is true.
My friend I talked to is in love, and she observed that “Every man I slept with before gave me something I needed to have a relationship this good. Without them, my guy and I could not be.” That rings right to me as well.
“Every person you sleep with leaves a residue on you,” my friend Alex told me over coffee a few years ago. “Not so much a residue, more like… like a barnacle.”
I’d known Alex a little while, and we’d collaborated professionally on some things, but until that moment at Peet’s, I hadn’t been on the receiving end of his views on sex and the soul. (Alex likes to say he is “on The Path” and “Connected to the True Wisdom.” You can guess how he feels about vaccines.)
“Would you tell me how many people you’ve slept with?” Alex had asked.
I frowned. As I said earlier, I don’t have anything more than a guesstimate -- and I tend to think just a little less of the people who ask for it.
Still, out of curiosity as to where this was going as much as anything else, I offered Alex a very approximate number, based on female partners only.
Alex wasn’t surprised or shocked. He nodded.
“That means you have that many people’s energy to cleanse off your skin, to scrape off your soul. Their residue is parasitical, eating away at your true self.”
I sat with that for a second. I imagined pretty barnacles of lace and perfume and boots and sweat, burrowing into a white balloon. Since I was a small boy in a Catholic kindergarten, my soul has always seemed to me to be a shimmering, helium-filled orb, dancing at the end of a long string.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m laughing because I think you’ve got it exactly backwards. You’re saying that the people we sleep with weaken our relationship with our truest self. But isn’t it possible that the people we touch make us who we are? Our lovers are catalysts for growth, not obstacles to it – they’re creators, not destroyers.”
I misquoted that great Chuck Palahniuk line, that nothing of me is original, and I am merely the sum of everyone whom I have met.
(I am quite certain that I am not the only one for whom this is so.)
Alex gave me the sorrowful, slightly smug look the true believer always flashes when his message is rejected. “The good man you could be is blocked by your body’s memory of all you’ve done,” he said.
I got a little bit cross: “Whatever good you see in me is the result of who and what I’ve done. Not in spite of.”
“Would you like another coffee?” Alex asked.
“That’d be great, thanks! Black, three sugars.”
We got to work, and did not speak of barnacles again.
To be clear -- I’m not claiming that the higher your number of sexual partners, the wiser and more prepared for a relationship (if you want one) you’ll be. It’s more complex than that. What I am saying is that it is a serious mistake to portray brief sexual relationships as acts of superficial and unsatisfying repetition. Whatever wisdom you see in me is at least partly the consequence of a lot of different experiences with a lot of different people.
I am a better and gentler man not a lesser and more cynical one, for having been touched by all the various people who touched me.
I write this on the first anniversary of the day I asked Victoria to marry me. We will be wed in October. I am not a perfect fiancé, but I am a much better partner to her than I was to any woman who came before her. Some of that is because of who Vic is, and some of that is because of the man whom I have become. I am who I am because of my past, not in spite of it, and this relationship is all the stronger for it.
All my life, I’ve assumed that I am loved. I do not assume myself worthy of that love, but I have felt it nonetheless, and it has made me tremble in gratitude and wonder. I often think of my departed loved ones as active onlookers in my life, guiding me and cheering me on. I imagine my father and grandparents and ancestors pulling for me. And whether they are living or dead, I also imagine my ex-lovers, even those whom I loved for a single hour, as a particular cloud of witnesses, watching and advising and reassuring. I am a better man for their well-wishes. I am who I am because I’ve been touched so much and loved so well.
The past, for me, isn’t a barnacle or a dead weight. It is the battery that powers my present, and will power my future. It is the best of me.