Eileene Tejada wrote this piece at last summer’s Commonweal Writer’s Retreat and she brought down the house reading it at the reading our final night. I was so delighted when she told me I could publish it here for your reading pleasure!
I come from a culture where virginity was more of a cult than a state of being. All the stories about having sex for the first time were horrible: women who refused to touch their husbands on their wedding night. It was such a paradox. Dating was romantic; there were tales of dancing and serenedes, but the wedding night, the men played sexual animal to our mother’s frigid prey.
My mother told me that if I had sex before marriage very bad things would happen to me. One, I would never know happiness. Two, I would disgrace the family name and my father’s honor. Three, she would know I had sex because I would walk differently. This was her trump card. Since I wasn’t around when my mother had sex the first time, I didn’t know how to compensate for the change in my walk.
Her warnings worked on me. My parents were champs at making me feel guilty; often, while they were working me over, I would cave in and tell on myself. I did not want to be held responsible for disgracing my father’s honor. He had grown up without a mother, in desperate poverty. The only thing he had was his honor.
I finally stopped believing in the virginity cult when I went to the wedding of a family friend. I knew the bride was not a virgin, but my parents didn’t know. This was the perfect opportunity to test all their admonitions that had kept me a virgin.
My grandmother, an avid member of the Sisters of the Virginity cult always said that if you were not a virgin and you wore white on your wedding day, your veil would fall off at your wedding. Grandma was a great storyteller. So when she told me about the veil falling off, it wasn’t just a story, it was fact. If the veil fell off, there would be mayhem at the church. Sonia’s dad, my dad, and all the Puerto Rican men would assault the groom. The women would brand Sonia with a scarlet letter for the crime of premarital sex. I found myself wincing at the public humiliation that Sonia would have to endure. Still, I was intrigued.
If her veil falls off, I told myself, I’ll reconsider; if it doesn’t, God, I am not waiting. That seemed like a fair deal to make with the Creator of the Universe.
And I needed to be able to report back to my friends, who were also held in bondage to the Sisters of the Virginity cult.
I listened quietly as my mother expressed how proud she was that Sonia had waited to have sex until after she got married. She went on and on about it. As Sonia went over to the statue of the Virgin Mary to the tune of the celestial Ave Maria chorus, I kept my eye on the veil. Well, if the veil falls off…but it didn’t. Sonia strolled down the aisle with her new husband and the veil did not move an inch from her head. I was in the clear.
That’s when I leaned over and asked my mother a question. It was more a declaration. “Mom, you were a virgin when you got married, and you are miserable in your marriage. Grandma was a virgin when she married her first husband, grandpa, and he beat her. So Mom, you can be a virgin and be totally unhappy in the marriage, and you can have sex before marriage and still be unhappy. It doesn’t really matter does it?”
My mother turned a pale white color. Her dark brown eyes fixed a piercing gaze at me. For a minute I thought, this isn’t the hill I want to die on. She gave me the “wait ’til I get home” look. It struck the fear of God in me without her saying a word. Oh boy, I had done it now.
After the wedding reception, I really got it. Mom shared my comment with Grandma, and Grandma, the family problem solver, summoned the troops. In my family, no matter how “private” the problem, if you told Grandma, and she couldn’t solve it, it went to the council of elders. Even the family in Puerto Rico was summoned to tell me what to do. This time, Mom called in the works: Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Padrino, my Godfather, got on the virgin wagon. I was trapped at the kitchen counter listening to them give speech after speech about the virtues of waiting. I was too young. My mother said if I got pregnant, she would kick me out of the house. Padrino proceeded to describe how kissing might be too much for me since it could make me get too hot; mercifully Grandma stepped in with, “Frankie basta, enough!”
I realized these people knew nothing. In their reasons, all I heard were their fears. They were unable to accept that I had become a sexual being. In their minds I would always be their little girl. I had pushed them to the edge, and I wasn’t backing down.
My friends Laura and Diana were asking themselves the same question. When I told them what happened, they were surprised I had gotten out alive. They laughed at my attempt to talk to my parents about having sex. I said, “I don’t want to feel guilty about ‘doing it,’ so we gotta know if we should wait. Then I got a brilliant idea. “Let’s go ask Carl.” Diana and Laura beamed. “Yes, he is the wisest man we know, and he is honest. It was settled, Carl will know what to do.”
Dr. Carl Bryant was an American Indian Philosophy professor. In what turned out to be divine intervention, the three of us had taken his class at the local state university as high school seniors. Carl was a Lakota Sioux Medicine man. He was the first educator to validate my experience as a woman of color, and he encouraged me to pursue my gifts as a shaman. I called him, and he agreed to meet us. I forgot to mention the purpose of the meeting. Poor man.
When we walked into Carl’s office, he did a ceremony with us to call the ancestors, a ritual to honor our desire to know and ask questions. Carl was proud that we honored this tradition. He smiled at us, waiting for our question. There was a pause. And then I got up my courage. “Carl, should we have sex before we get married?”
Carl looked stunned. A blush crept into his cheeks. I could tell by the way he shifted his body that he was trying to recover from the shock. He looked at each of us slowly and intently, and his eyes softened with compassion. He said, “That’s the question?”
Carl told us about the Lakota Sioux way. That family, children, and monogamy were important. And that life-giving force is to be respected. Sex was sacred. It created a union not just of the body, but of the spirit. We should not consider doing it lightly, but responsibly.We were responsible for creating life. Carl placed sex within the spiritual context. He did not shame our curiosity. And he also told us that sex was not what guaranteed happiness in life.
Diana, Laura, and I left his office satisfied. We felt he had given us the okay.
When I got home after seeing Carl, I called my college boyfriend to give him the good news. I had met Smitty at the financial aid office. While flirting with me, he asked me if I would help him with a film class project, and I agreed. After about a month of dating, he asked about having sex. I said no, but wasn’t sure why I was saying no, which triggered the “should I do it” obsession that landed me at Carl’s.
Smitty and I arranged a date at his place soon after I returned to San Diego. I felt awkward. I had never been naked in front of a man before. I remember lying there determined not to replicate my mother’s story of resistance and utter dislike of her first time, so I concentrated on enjoying it.
I was on my back looking at the ceiling when “it” happened. I was shocked. What, no earthquake! The sky was not opening and angels descending to make the announcement that I had disgraced the family name.
Then, I remembered my mother’s trump card! In all the excitement about Carl’s “freeing” advice, I had forgotten it. She would know I had sex because I would walk differently.
When we finished, I grabbed the sheet and said, “I know this is gonna sound weird, but I need you to trust me. I am going to walk from one side of the room to another, and I want you to tell me if you notice anything different.”
He looked absolutely dumbfounded. He dark eyes stared hard at me. I could see he was trying to understand my request. He didn’t say a word. In retrospect, I think he probably thought, “Great, I have just had sex with a nut case.” He watched me walk across the room with the sheet wrapped around me.
“Notice anything different?” I asked nervously.
He gently said, “No, I don’t see anything different. What am I looking for?”
“Just anything that doesn’t look ‘normal,’” I said, nervously adjusting the sheet.
“Nope, can’t see anything that doesn’t look normal.
I stopped. “Really?” With that I got back in bed and melted into his arms.
Born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, Eileene Cruz Tejada is a keen observer of people. She learned this skill in the intimate embrace of her Puerto Rican cultural roots. Her Nuyorican identity was forged in the heat of close extended family ties, steeped in a rich tradition of song and dance, and piqued by her fascination with her people’s culinary arts. As a mother and engaging writer, Eileene strives to transmit her cultural values to her children and share them with readers who yearn to see through her eyes the lifeways of Puerto Rican history and living community.