Vivian

by Brittney Uecker

“How did you lose your virginity?” I asked Vivian one day freshman year while we were splayed out on the grass in Washington Square Park, licking frozen yogurt off the back of plastic spoons. It was an unseasonably warm day for March, the sun teasing at spring despite the chill of still-damp grass beneath us.

The thought had come to me suddenly and out of nowhere, and then gnawed at me for days. I rarely kept things like this from Vivian, always speaking exactly what was on my mind to her without concern about how it was going to be received — a direct, unfiltered conduit from my mind to my mouth. It was obvious that it had happened at some point since we’d got to college — at this point, sex was as habitual to us both as anything else — but we had never talked about it, and friends like us didn’t have secrets.

Vivian laughed and dug for a raspberry in her cup.

“Sophomore year.”

My mind did a flip trying to work out the timeline.

“Sophomore year? Like, of high school?”

She looked at her frozen yogurt, focused on extracting the raspberry. “Yeah, Nathan from the track team, night after he won the state meet.”

I tried to remember Nathan — gangly, sandy blond, I think he sat behind me in American History. I hadn’t spoken more than a few words to him through all of high school. It didn’t seem possible that Vivian had been with the same person.

“Wait — how? Nathan? Why didn’t I know this?”

Vivian finally found the coveted raspberry and popped it into her mouth. I could see it’s bright, crimson juices spill between her teeth and stain her lips as her frozen yogurt melted against the heat of her tongue. She shrugged.

“He must have given me a ride home or something. I don’t really remember. I mean, I always thought he was cute. It wasn’t a big deal or anything.”

My chocolate frozen yogurt suddenly tasted sour in my mouth.

“Not a big deal? What are you talking about? That’s a huge deal! You had a crush on Nathan all year, I remember that.”

Vivian smirked, like she was recalling a pleasant but distant memory. “Yeah, he was pretty hot, huh?”

I couldn’t believe she was being so casual about this, and I couldn’t believe that it was nearly four years ago. At that time, sophomore year, Vivian and I were nearly inseparable. On the rare occasions that we were apart — her at a track meet or me spending a weekend away with my parents — we texted constantly, calling each other night like lovers to recount every miniscule detail of our days apart. If something like this could slip through the cracks, either accidentally lost or very intentionally brushed over, what other details had I missed out on? What else was Vivian keeping from me?

🌬

Vivian and I both started freshman year at NYU the fall before this revelation. Neither of us had ever been to a college party before, but she conjured up the invite at some point during our hall orientation. As our RA rambled on about quiet hours and shower etiquette and if you see something, say something, Vivian passed whispers and raised eyebrows with the other girls from our hall. By the time we got back to our room, our plans for the evening were set.

Vivian also conjured up an enormous, glittery bottle of blueberry vodka. When I asked her how she was able to get it, she acted like it was no big deal, that she simply walked into the supermarket and bought it like it was toilet paper or candy. I didn’t question it. I also didn’t question when she handed me a plastic cup filled with liquor, a splash of Gatorade from the vending machine giving it a slightly blue tinge. It tasted awful, chemical and biting and wrong. My gut kicked it back up into my throat and I coughed, spraying blue all over our dorm room floor.

“Hey hey hey,” Vivian said calmly, a hand immediately on my back. “You okay?”

Anyone else would have egged me on, ridiculed my inexperience and encouraged me by shoving even more booze down my throat, but Vivian was gentle, concerned.

“That’s fucking digusting,” I choked out.

Vivian laughed. “It’s okay, babe. I’m sure they’ll have something better at the party.”

The party was at an apartment on the other side of campus. We passed a cigarette back and forth as we clicked across the green in our heels, shivering in tiny dresses. If anyone were to look at us, they would see two girls walking side by side, assured and confident, two girls who knew the lay of the land. But this was a fallacy, because it was I who followed Vivian. She held enough magic for the two of us, and without her we had none. Without her there was no me, because we were only we.

Up six flights of stairs and down a brightly lit hallway, the pounding thump of music leaked from beneath a door offset on its hinges, indicative of the entire building melting in on itself. A few stragglers dotted the hall, their eyes resting on our leggy figures for a second too long. Vivian didn’t seem to notice, or if she did, she didn’t care, and we pressed through the door into the apartment.

An assault of noise besieged us as we entered, overlapping voices fighting for purchase against the indecipherable lyrics being pumped through the speakers. Bodies squished against each other, more people than I had ever seen concentrated in such a space at once, filling every inch of the apartment. No one noticed us as we walked in, just two more bodies to add to the heap. I recognized no one, none of the girls from orientation, and wondered how exactly Vivian had found this place.

“Let’s go find some beer,” she said as she grabbed my hand and began to pull me through the crowd. The heat of so many humans caused condensation to drip from the walls. The smell of sweat was overwhelming. I pulled my elbows in close and dipped my shoulders but inevitably bumped into strangers as I tried to keep up with Vivian. I avoided their eyes, keeping my focus on the V of her bare back in her tiny dress, the dips of brown flesh as she maneuvered us through the room.

She led me out a sliding glass door at the back of the apartment and onto a balcony that was only slightly less crowded. The keg sat in a bucket of what was once ice but was now just cloudy water. Vivian pulled two plastic cups from a bag next to it and began to manipulate the contraption with ease. I watched her pump and flick and fill, tipping the cups at a precise angle to minimize the foam, though I had no idea about this technique. She handed me one.

“How do you know how to do that?” I asked.

She sipped. A cloud of white foam clung to her lip and her tongue flashed pink to remove it.

“I don’t know, I just do,” she answered dismissively, her attention elsewhere. I let my eyes follow hers.

Everyone appeared obviously older than us, and I wondered whether this infantilization was real or just a result of my insecurity. I immediately categorized them based on their appearances, making split-second, knee-jerk assumptions. Behind the keg, two hipster poet-types in thick-rimmed glasses were deeply engaged in a conversation that left them stone-faced, eyebrows pressed together in concentration. To their right, a couple of punky-looking girls with harshly-colored hair and tattoos peeking out of their clothing sloshed beer out of their cups as they laughed. In the opposite corner were two men, a tall lanky blond with milky skin and a sharp beard, and a darker man with large brown eyes and a head of curly black hair. They seemed the least intimidating of the group.

Vivian pinched the sensitive skin under my arm and nodded towards them. I followed her. Their conversation trailed off and their eyes landed on us as we came closer. I wondered what instantaneous assumptions they were making, which categorical box they set us in, and I hoped mine was the same as Vivian’s.

“Hey, ladies,” said the blond as we approached. He had small flake-like teeth and thin lips. I didn’t find him attractive at all — something about that smile felt weak and hinted at a penchant for overcompensating confidence.

Vivian smiled and leaned back against the railing, making herself look sexy and powerful and effortless. This was intentional, this instant command of the situation through her body language.

“You boys having fun?” she asked. I tried to track the sound of her voice, the formula of pitch and cadence that equaled flirtatious.

The blond shrugged and held up his cup. “Free beer. Can’t complain, right?”

I sipped my own and felt the thump of my heart in my chest.

“You guys go to NYU?” she asked.

“Pratt,” said the blond. “Grad school for architecture. My boy, Daveed,” — he motioned to the curly-haired guy — “Ph. D. in bullshit.”

The curly-haired guy smiled shyly. “He means philosophy,” he corrected. “And I’m only a first year. Can’t claim that title quite yet.”

I prickled with nerves. We were freshmen. We were in way over our heads. I tried to telepathically communicate this fear to Vivian, but she wasn’t responding, just plumping her lips and taking in both of the men.

“So you’re Daveed —” She looked at the philosophy guy, then averted her eyes to the blond. “And you’re?”

“Will.”

“William.” She rolled the word around like candy on her tongue. It was clear that of the two, he appealed to her more. This would prove, as we got older, to be quite the convenience for us — our opposing tastes in men, never stepping on each other’s toes.

“And you?” asked Daveed, addressing both of us but looking at me.

“Vivian,” she piped up. “This is Bianca.”

“Bee,” I corrected her.

Daveed smiled out one side of his mouth, pulling his cheek into the dip of a dimple. He lifted his drink to his lips and watched me over the edge of the cup as he sipped. I felt a tingle rush through my body, thrilled at seeing that I had his attention. I sensed the same shyness in him that I felt, the apprehension of not wanting to scramble over a moment and ruin it.

When Vivian and I were young, boys had always been peripheral. There was attraction, curiosity, hopeless crushes, but none of the rapidity and soul-crushing emotional whiplash of allowing them to maintain the forefront of our attention. Vivian and I existed in a world where we were our own focus, our own entertainment, our own lovers only in the sense of our adoration and devotion to each other as friends. We didn’t need the distraction of boys. Dating would be a wedge between us. Neither of us could have something that the other one couldn’t — this wasn’t a conscious axiom, just an unspoken ethereal understanding. The threat of our friendship souring over something as temporary and asinine as a boy wasn’t worth the pleasure of answering the call of our blooming sexuality.

But that night at the party, something was different. As Vivian navigated this interaction, seamlessly steering the conversation and attention of these men without any obvious effort or struggle, it was something I had never seen before, this skill set that she had somehow obtained while I hadn’t. I was too confused to be jealous, worrying what else I had missed, what other necessary competencies I lacked.

We wandered through all the trivial talking points of an exchange amongst strangers. Vivian did most of the talking, but as my beer slowly disappeared, I became more spongy and bold and interjected myself into the conversation where appropriate. I elicited a couple laughs from the boys, a fewing approving nods from Vivian, both of which made my heart swell with pride.

I watched Daveed with a careful eye between words. He was cute, but in a way that needed a little convincing and the lubrication of booze. His soft mocha skin was accented by a carefully manicured goatee and deep dimples that made me melt. His lips stretched into an easy smile, framing gleaming teeth and a deep, sharp voice that made me think of caramel sauce or an Exacto knife.

As he watched me on the balcony, I felt on display, penetrated, like he was seeing some honesty inside of me that I was supposed to be hiding. I thought it would be scary, but my fear dulled, morphing to a sort of self-satisfaction, an inoculation of power as I began to realize that I was the one in command. Daveed was merely a creature at the mercy of his sex drive, and that made me the provider with the authority to grant or deny his satisfaction. Of course, I would also realize in the near-future that this was a naive and dangerous assumption, that I was in control of nothing and that a man could easily overtake any control I thought I had. But that night, I was too green and bemused to assume the worst in people.

At one point, William produced a bottle of liquor unidentifiable to my untrained eye and we all took pulls. It was harsh like the vodka and piney, like a garden carrot dipped in rubbing alcohol. The interaction became more effortless and less defined, the edges fuzzy and subjects seamlessly flowing from one to the other. We moved from the balcony to the living room, where we squished together on a futon. With my body pressed up against Daveed’s, I was further intoxicated by his scent, piney and acerbic like the booze with a blanket of cologne that reminded me of my father. Some pop song came on the stereo and Vivian and I began to dance in the middle of the living room, pulling the boys up from the futon and encouraging them to dance with us. My body moved on its own accord in ways I didn’t know it could move. I watched my arms flail out of the corner of my vision like they were someone else’s, drunken phantom limbs.

Daveed may have been apprehensive about dancing with me, but he obliged regardless. I pressed my ass against him, felt his large hands on the flesh of my side, heard the distant ‘whoop!’ of voices in the room encouraging me. I turned to face him, pressed my hips into his, so close to him that his scent became my own, and felt the distinctive hard edge of his groin growing against me as we continued to dance. When his mouth found its way to mine, it was large and overwhelming, as warm and wet as a bathtub. I let myself sink into it, a welcomed drowning.

We were in an Uber before I knew how we got there, flying into the city lights. The dark shape of Vivian and William moved together in the shadows of the backseat, the quiet moaning and wet smacking sounds of kissing. Daveed and I soon contributed our own notes to the symphony, mouths and hands wandering with unspoken invitations, all of it new. The scratch of his stubbly neck against my lips, the flick of his fingertips against the edge of my underwear, the manifestation of things I had only imagined when my own hands pulsed against my body beneath the sheets of my solitary bed. I thought momentarily of the Uber driver, their voyeuristic eyes watching this shameless animalism in the rearview mirror, but it didn’t stop me.

In an apartment next, just a momentary flash of a dim, cluttered room, the clink of a bottle cap hitting a countertop, the fuzzy feeling of carbonation against my tongue. More music, like it was being transmitted through the walls themselves, punk or jazz or something loud and pointed. Daveed’s fingers intertwined in mine, pulling me down the hall towards a bedroom. A last look at Vivian as she danced around the room, her laughs mixing with Will’s, her eyes sending a message of warning and a nod of approval all in a single gaze. “You can do this,” her gaze said. “Be careful, but fucking go for it.”

I had never had sex before, and in my drunkenness I considered telling Daveed this, but didn’t. I searched the depths of my fragmented memories for what I was supposed to do, images from movies and porn that I could imitate, but thankfully Daveed took the reins, shifting my body to where it was supposed to be, forming it into the shapes it was supposed to be in. He maneuvered us with smoothness and experience, a clear and nearby familiarity. I liked his weight on top of me, skin I hadn’t felt before in places I’d never felt it. It was quick, happening and then suddenly not, a sharp pain and odd fullness and then Daveed rolling off of me and into the slice of moonlight streaming in through the window.

“That was nice,” he said breathlessly, looking at me through the shadows.

“Yeah,” I falsely agreed, my own breathlessness a farce. I hadn’t even come close to orgasm.

When he pulled the condom off and slid off the bed to throw it away in the bathroom, I breathed a sigh of relief — virginity: check — and fell asleep immediately, slipping into the dark weightlessness of drunken sleep.

🌬

I awoke to the warmth of a hand on my cheek and the tickle of fingers sliding through my hair.

“Bee,” a soft voice whispered. “Wake up, babe.”

My eyes were crusted together with mucus and old makeup and opened up stubbornly. Through the darkness, I made out the silhouette of Vivian’s curls.

“Fuck,” I whispered. “I’m awake, I’m awake.” It took me a few moments to place myself in the context of this unfamiliar environment. I felt the surprise of my nakedness beneath the sheets, the unusual firmness of a mattress that wasn’t mine, Daveed’s heavy arm draped over me and sticking to my skin with a sheen of sweat. Fragments of the night began to float back to me in blurry, unsettling pieces.

“What time is it?” I murmured as I pushed myself up off the lumpy pillows that smelled like Daveed.

“Fuck if I know. Four or five?” said Vivian. “We gotta go. Get dressed. I’m gonna go look for our shoes.”

I slid out from under Daveed’s arm and felt around in the darkness for my clothes. I slid the dress over my body but gave up on trying to find my underwear in the sea of the bed. I had the brief urge to kiss Daveed on the cheek or leave my number on his bedside table like they did in the movies, some token of thanks or indicator of continuation. The surprise of my underwear swimming somewhere in his sheets would have to do.

Vivian and I left the apartment quietly and entered the severe brightness of the hallway. My legs were jelly-like and unstable, my still-drunk head wobbly on my shoulders and pulsing with an incessant, dull ache.

“Where are we even? How far is it back to campus?” I asked.

Vivian had her phone out and was trying to establish our location. She looked a thousand times better than how I felt.

“Williamsburg. We’ll have to take the G line back, but there’s a stop on the next block.”

The idea of walking any length in my current state, let alone stirring my velocity on a subway, made my stomach turn and my muscles hurt, but we had no choice. Apparently staying over until morning wasn’t an option, and I took Vivian’s word for it. Like last night, somehow she seemed to know how this whole one-night-stand thing went, what the appropriate behaviors associated with this ritual were, and I guess sleeping off the hangover in a stranger’s bed wasn’t part of that equation.

The streets were disorientingly quiet at this hour. An imagined line of sunlight seemed to swell just beneath the horizon. We didn’t say much until we were on the subway, thankfully empty this early.

“So,” Vivian began. She was hunched in the seat across from me, while I laid across the seats trying not to puke and not giving a shit about how many germs teemed on their surface. “Quite a night, huh?”

I emitted an emotionless groan. “Yeah, I’ll say.”

“So…” she lingered, then paused and smiled at me conspiratorially.

“So what?”

“Did you do it?”

It was impossible to focus on anything concrete. I felt like a marshmallow encased by an eggshell. “Do what?”

“David. Davis. Daniel?”

“Daveed.”

“Daveed, right. So did you? Did you fuck him?”

It sounded so hard and severe in those terms, eliciting the same flinching gut-punch as the word cunt or cock. I thought about Daveed, the unassuming kindness I wanted to paint over him in my memory, though I had no idea if that was an accurate representation at all. It suddenly occurred to me, the reality that I had just had sex with a stranger, lost my virginity to a man I’d never see again, and I felt a dark wave wash over me.

“Yeah, of course I did.”

I said it because it was what Vivian would say, how she would say it. She would fuck a stranger and not concern herself with whether she would see him again. She’d take it for what it was. She would own it. Vivian would do these things.

“Did you?” I asked, praying she would have a similar answer.

She shrugged. “Nah. We had a few more drinks and made out for a little bit, but I just wasn’t into it.” She said it casually, with a nonchalance that was unfathomable.

My heart dropped through my chest like a stone.

“Wait — you guys didn’t have sex?”

“Nope.”

I wanted to throw up. Suddenly I wanted to throw myself in front of the train, so stupidly naive that I had let this all happen to me, so rash, so impulsive. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, that he had forced himself onto me unwillingly, but I had no idea that it had been a choice.

More than that, I had wandered into an uncharted territory between Vivian and I, sex an unbreeched frontier for both of us. I had stepped into the unknown without bringing her with me, and now this was something we no longer shared, a way in which we were no longer equal. This was something I didn’t want to have first. I didn’t want to navigate this alone. Like tapping a keg and finding a party and putting on eyeliner correctly, I needed Vivian to be my guide. I was overcome with anxiety that I didn’t have her blueprint for this, and more so that she didn’t seem to care.

Did you sleep in his bed or on the couch? I wanted to ask. Who fell asleep first? Did he say goodnight? Did you have to say that you weren’t going to have sex or was it just understood? I wanted to ask her a million questions, establish all the details that didn’t matter, just to give her back the upperhand, but it was all too much, so I remained silent. She didn’t offer up more.

Before long, Vivian nudged me awake again, having been lulled back to sleep by the movement of the subway, and we emerged into the aching glow of the sunrise, trudged across the dewey grass of the campus green, and slept curled together in my dorm room bed until afternoon.

🌬

That night was the first of many, the jumping-off point into the thrashing ocean of our college years — a blurred collage of parties and men and booze, lack of sleep and flailing spontaneity. Come the weekend, come nightfall, Vivian always ‘knew a place’. We’d find ourselves in dorm rooms and apartments and walk-ups, on someone’s roof or crammed into a tiny living room, neighborhoods we’d never heard of and parts of the city we were warned about. Always, it was Vivian at the helm, navigating logistics and procuring enough booze to get us there buzzed and maintain our collective state of drunkenness over the weekend. It was magical, a skill I had never seen her utilize until now, but I never questioned it.

After Daveed, a string of forgettable men followed, their names and faces and touches interchangeable and underwhelming. Every time we went out, the routine was the same — I’d scan the room, select whatever attractive-enough guy was closest at hand, and land eyes on him. “That one,” I’d say, and will him to look my way. A drink or a dance or a tiresome, repeated conversation would turn into a kiss. It never took much to get a boy into bed, whether his or mine or whoever’s was most accessible at the time — I’d even fucked guys in Vivian’s bed, which somehow made me feel strangely closer to her, another milestone in our friendship. It didn’t matter who it was, just someone to check the mark, to fulfill the ritual, something for Vivian and I to talk about the next day over hangover pizza and warm leftover beer.

There was a level of confidence that I gained from all of it, from proving to myself that I was capable of enticing a man. It gave me a sense of power that I was the one in control, that I could choose, even though I always made the same choice. I never had any illusions of longevity with these men. These were clearly one-night-stands, which in a way was my own insurance policy — even if I was an embarrassment, a total drunken shitshow, as I was more often than not, I wouldn’t have to see them again. The moment would die the second I left their bed, be forgotten as soon as I set eye on the next guy I wanted to fuck.

Still, there was always that split second when I woke up next to someone. I would watch them sleeping peacefully, see the barely perceptible flutter of their nostrils as they breathed, their delicately parted lips and the soft curves of cheekbones, all their nuances and imperfections, and I would be reminded that this was a human, a worthy, fragile individual no different than myself. I’d wonder for the briefest moment, could this guy be my boyfriend? Could I love him? But then the moment would pass. I’d get dressed, stumble back to my dorm, and wait for my vulnerability to reharden.

This time solidified mine and Vivian’s respective roles in our relationship, the styles our personalities would take with them into adulthood. Vivian was the captain of our ship, the leader, fearless and all-knowing and assured. I trusted that not only would she always find us a place to go, but that she would protect me. She would let me go wild, as she did in equal measure, but it was like there was a string tied around my finger that tethered us together, and regardless of how far that line stretched, we could always follow it back to each other. We never showed up anywhere without the other, and even when our paths diverged into the beds of separate men, we were always the first person we would talk to in the morning, never more than a phone call or a text message away.

On the surface, we appeared the same — enthusiastic party girls, an identical wildness, the same tiny glittery dresses and smeared lipstick and vodka breath. But underneath, we were a different texture. Vivian was made of solid steel, gutsy and unflappable. She was sure of herself, even in her riotous craziness, even when she was drunk beyond logic and the fool of the scene, she owned it. In our next-day rehashings of even the craziest parties, she never shriveled in shame or wore the pallor of regret. She never blamed inebriation or other people for her misgivings. These were choices she made. They belonged to her, nearly treasured.

But where Vivian was deliberate, measured, methodical, I was a wildfire — consuming, consuming, consuming. Given an inch, I would easily and greedily take a mile. I always took it too far, saw the line of my limits and willingly leaped over it, and was subsequently submerged in regret. After a night of doing unthinkable things to my liver and lungs, after having forgettable sex with faceless men, the guilt would swallow me whole. It left me drained, spent, running on fumes, wondering if I could possibly make it to the weekend, through the semester, to graduation. I was being eaten alive by the fear that I was sullying my potential, that I was throwing it all away. Vivian, on the other hand, saw potential as a fallacy — either you were or you weren’t, you had or you didn’t.

You were alive or you were dead.

If she could do it, I could do it. Vivian was enough to carry us both.