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What we talk about when we talk about intimacy.

Perhaps in our most naked moments we are fully clothed. 

Intimacy, to me, was a little like Microsoft Excel. If asked, I could answer. If out of sight, I didn’t afford either much attention. In an interview I could say I knew enough Excel to get the job done, and at a dinner party laugh politely at a sexual innuendo. But, until asked to sit at a desk and flaunt my spreadsheet prowess, I didn’t realize I had never opened the program. I can’t be the only one who thought all humans were endowed with equal Excel skills and the capacity to be close to others…

My struggle with physical intimacy snuck up on me--quietly but nevertheless disruptive. And it grew like my laundry pile does on a busy week: a little bit at a time but by Sunday big enough to tell me I’m the one who has to go get washed. In hindsight, though, I can see clearly each moment I threw a piece of clothing at the pile. My discomfort developed the more I trusted the judgment of others on a subject in which I was the only expert: myself. 

Over years of hearing that I wasn’t sexual enough in energy or bold enough in action, in time I came to believe that I was behind in experience. I remember my first boyfriend explaining to me that intimacy was important to a relationship; even clearer, I remember feeling as though I was listening to a lecture from a parent, baby-talking me through something he believed I didn't know. As I grew more interested in boys, it seemed that they were most concerned with preserving my innocence, never stopping to ask me what I wanted or thought was right. By my young adulthood, I felt that there was an intimacy boat, and that it was getting ready to leave me at the dock. 

During this time, the fear of expectation exacerbated my anxieties surrounding intimacy. It was like figuring out how to talk about Excel in a job interview, knowing that I was afraid to even try editing a document. What would I say in a big group drinking game when asked ‘the craziest place’ I’ve had sex? When everyone around me had stories to laugh about and grievances to relate to, would my quietness give me away? And, if in a situation where I wanted to be intimate, how clear would my inexperience be? Would it betray me?

Maybe frustration led me to change. I hated how my mental block around intimacy grew but, beyond that, I hated that I let it. I like to think that my attitude evolved the moment I realized ‘slowness’ implies relativity. And if intimacy is about closeness–by definition necessitating individuality, no one standard for propriety–how could I be ‘behind’? On my own timing, it was impossible to fall off course. Eventually, I became involved with someone for whom I cared deeply. This feeling of safety began within myself, of course, but nourished my perspective on the relationship. It was only then that I could abandon the expectations I alone had subjected myself to. So, I threw myself at honesty and didn’t look back. 

I kissed him the same way I had felt comfortable doing with others since I was 15; this was never difficult territory for me. But I met the perimeter of safety sooner than I anticipated, early into our relationship, the moment he asked me ‘how far’ I wanted to go. I remember my initial silence--not only never having been asked this, but thinking that there were steps in between kissing and whatever ‘far’ was. I thought I would have more time before needing to figure out my answer when, really, I was approaching no man’s land. 

Then it was like getting in a cold ocean: I jumped in all at once, knowing the first few minutes would threaten hypothermia but that, soon, I would forget I was even swimming. The second I would typically freeze, purple, desperate for a towel, too numb to bear, and determined to never touch the water again, instead I stayed. I sat in my unease, doggy paddled around in it, and saw I had never been in a place so soft and quick to heat. 

I told him everything, which was that I knew nothing. And I probably rambled and blushed and tripped over my words in recalling encounters that stuck with me more than they should have, the pieces of clothing I’d launched limply over my shoulder but somehow had piled tall enough to swallow me. In hearing the words come out of my mouth, I realized this was the first time I’d said them both to myself and to someone else. Only then did I uncover what frustrated me most: that an act which was exciting to others was so scary to me, and the cognitive dissonance of wanting to overcome my fear but feeling unable to. 

My clothed confession was the most intimate act I had ever performed. His eyes told me that however ugly, childish, ungraceful, or too forward I thought my explanation was, didn't matter. I knew he saw me in that moment, nodding and holding me in understanding. In doing what I feared most–asking questions, revealing my confusion, taking off a sticky boob and and having to explain what it was I found openness. I first had to admit to myself what scared me and understand why so that I could offer truth to others. Still, the most precious closeness was the one I created all on my own…I found freedom strong enough to let me practice intimacy with others, but hold onto it for myself. 

You can find more of Jenna's writing on her blog, Moments and Meaning.