God Is a Question and Virginity Is Folklore, 2018

1st Place for Katherine Rose Phillips Memorial Award 2018
1. Though I would never actually utter these words aloud, the truth is that I quite like when my coffee goes cold. I wouldn’t say I like it better, necessarily. And yet, I find it impossible to deny a perverse pleasure inevitably accompanying the coldness on tongue where I know it should not be.

2. I almost think it tastes sweeter when it is cold. Sugar or no. There is a succinct flavor about it. The better part of a coffee bean, maybe.

3. As a child, we never went to church, excepting one Easter Sunday, on which my mom suggested I go with her. I put on a pencil skirt, which was very trendy at the time. She told me it was too tight, too short. “That isn’t appropriate to wear to church.” Her lips pressed into a thin line.

4. Of course, I wore it anyway. If you have never been to a Catholic church, you may not be fully aware of how often one is required during the one-hour service to alternately sit and stand. I admit that the skirt was a bad choice with regards to practicality, but I also firmly believe that it had to be worn. I was a child, but the skirt was sex. I wonder now how infrequently the wood of the pew is felt on the bare skin of a woman’s legs. I wonder how it did not light on fire each time I sat and my skirt shortened that extra inch. The wood was cold on the back of my thighs, it sent a chill up my spine.

5. “Abruptly hard nipples: the bane of your winter existence.” (Puckett 2016)

6. I hadn’t known the “Our Father” at that time. My mother’s drinking was picking up and I decided that Catechism would save me. I began to attend lessons Thursday nights at the church down the street.

7. “God is nothing if not the surpassing of God in every sense of vulgar being, in that of horror or impurity; and ultimately in the sense of nothing.” (Foucault 1977, 33)

8. I wonder if anyone has ever had sex in that church.

9. I remember nothing from these lessons now, and I want to say it’s a shame, but the truth is that it isn’t, really. I only remember the unfriendly plastic of the pages in the workbook. The pen never felt natural on these pages. The writing felt clumsy, as if borne of a space it was obliged to reject. But then, I must have been a bit like that too, at that time.

10. Is the folklore of religion the religion itself, or the discourse it generates?

11. And so on Sundays, while everyone else was in church, my sister, my father, and I would all go to IHOP. Once Church let out, of course, all of Long Island would rush to IHOP. I sometimes think the reason people went to church was so that after, they could go to IHOP.

12. It is a matter of convenience that nearly all IHOPs are located directly across from shopping malls. If you are trying to get in touch with someone on Long Island and you are unable to reach them by telephone, my suggestion is to start with 10 AM mass, and then try IHOP, and then if those should both fail, the mall. I would almost say this is a guarantee.

13. They made me see a therapist. Or rather, they suggested it for many years, and when they finally stopped suggesting, I asked if I could please see one. I saw her for about three years. Her hair was dry and her face was pale and she let me cry in front of her.

14. Back to cold coffee. After my parents split, my mom left a bunch of her stuff in our house. She left this amazing coffee mug which would keep its contents warm for hours. I was slightly disappointed by this, and found that more often than not, I no longer had a desire to finish my coffee.

15. “We might characterize or describe the materials of folklore as ‘tradition-based communicative units informally exchanged in dynamic variation through space and time’” (Brunvard 1968)

16. I could never wear that pencil skirt again, following that Easter Sunday. I no longer liked it. It didn’t fit right anymore. It was ugly, I decided. I should add that I also haven’t been to church on an Easter Sunday since then.

17. “Grief sedated by orgasm / orgasm heightened by grief.” (Shire 2015)

18. I am pretty sure I saw that therapist at Target the other day with her daughter. My dad tells me she was a lesbian. She was no good at keeping track of when we paid her. After I stopped seeing her, she would text me sometimes and ask how I was doing. These texts were free of charge.

19. Our first date was beer pong in the back of a friend’s boyfriend’s backyard while his parents were away. I was awful at beer pong, he was awful at conversation, and the beer was shit. I was sixteen.

20. Everyone there had been baptized.

21. “The princess who cannot solve the riddle is also associated with a symbol of virginity – the riddle itself. Metaphorically, riddles are much like virginity. To begin with, the answer to any given riddle is preserved by some sort of mental barrier just as virginity is believed to be preserved by the intact hymen. Moreover, like virginity, any given riddle can only be solved once; after all, the riddle is not much of a riddle when both parties understand the connection which yields the answer.” (Lau 1996)

22. I tried Al-Anon, too. My favorite part of these meetings was that the coffee was almost guaranteed to go cold. It was held in a big insulated dispenser, and was probably brewed a half hour before people even began to arrive. I could have one cup during the meeting, and if I wanted, another following. The cups didn’t have tops. The sugar was provided in packets.

23. “I’ve started going to a Buddhist temple in Union Square!” She is in a rehab in Long Island City. “And I’ve been reading all about it and I think you’d be really interested. And I just love that area! So pretty.” It wasn’t surprising that my mother was adopting a new religion. What was surprising was that this religion was not monotheistic. But then, she sort of adopted it alongside her traditional Catholic beliefs. Praying to the God in her gohonzon.

24. At the meetings, they talk about God. Their Higher Power. How finding him saved their lives. And even though this is a tagline, I can’t help but feel like they never answer that question directly. I can’t help but feel like they are leaving something important out. Or maybe they are just lying to themselves to get through the day. Maybe I’m not supposed to notice this.

25. “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” (Lennon)

26. She subscribes to a Buddhist magazine and puts my home address as the delivery address, despite the fact it has never been, and will never be, her address.

27. Virginity loss is folklore. Virginity is folklore.

28. Step One: Sauté the sausage for about ten minutes, twelve if it is frozen. Remove from pan and keep on the side. Step Two: Sauté mushrooms in the grease from the sausage. Step Three: Sauté celery, onion, garlic, and leeks in a lot of butter, to the point where they are almost soupy. Step Three: Put the bread crumbs in a bowl. Step Four: Pour the buttery mixture on the bread crumbs, and then pour chicken broth over that, and use a spoon to mix it. Continue adding broth until it is the desired consistency. Step Five: Add the sausage, and slice chestnuts in. (Grennan)

29. “Unable to question his metaphor, she nodded yes.” (Diggs 2013)

30. As badly as I wanted him to kiss me, I was actually happy when he did not. It felt like an averted violation, to not have been kissed, to have been left with a simple, unobtrusive “When can I see you again?” I think this is different, I thought to myself, walking across my lawn after our first date. Still, I worried that I was too fucked up. That it might be contagious. That to pretend otherwise would be reckless.

31. “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” (Lady Bird 2017)

32. Our first time having sex was biological. A failed scientific experiment.

33. Two days later: “Can we try again?”

34. “Life is suffering – and yet” (some Buddhist)

35. “Origen..saith that such as live in virginity, doe not that which is commanded, but above what is due.” (Cartwright 1651)

36. There is a poignant contrast between a first date where you drink beer and a first date where you drink coffee, beyond the obvious contrast in beverage.

37. “When a person decides to lose her virginity, she is effectively electing to adopt a new personal identity and potentially a new social identity” (Carpenter 2001)

38. There was no malicious intent in my first time having sex, and yet, the air felt saturated with violation. Not that I didn’t technically consent, because I did. Maybe the violation was rooted in my inability to vocalize my change of heart, my decidedly complacent choice to stare at the specks on his ceiling and wait until it was over to go home and cry by myself.

39. “To My Dearest Nicole, When my Daddy died in 1986, your Mom turned to alcohol to escape from life, losing her father, and facing her demons that lurked inside her. Alcohol only temporarily numbs the pain of the facts we don’t want to be honest with ourselves. Your Mom was able to stay sober for many, many years but again, new horrible deep-rooted feelings have returned.” (Aunt Barbara 2010)

40. Sitting in his car nearly a year later, I tell him I really don’t think this relationship is good for either of us. I’m not happy. He motions towards the backseat of his car and says, “But can’t we have sex just one more time?”

41. “In the wintertime he would’ve / Grimaced and spat it out. Yet now in June, / The middle of the month with a dark sky / Lowering around his house, with flicks of lightning / Nicking the horizon across the wide valley, he / Picks up his half-forgotten cup and the dregs / Are cool and savory.” (Carruth 1997)

42. We sit down at our Thanksgiving table and my aunt suggests that we say Grace. Actually, suggests may be too soft a word. It was more of a command. “Hell no,” I say. It garners some laughs, but it is not a joke. “Not in this house.”

43. “I don’t believe in magic…I don’t believe in Bible.” (Lennon 1970)

44. But really, who is she to even suggest we say Grace? Why is it that God only shows up when I make mashed potatoes? Where was he when I needed him? Where was he?

45. “Fuck you! Go away!” This is the first time I have seen my father cry. My mother bangs on his door. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! You were never supposed to find that note! For God’s sake, Seany, open the door!” Is this a prayer, or a plea? Or are they the same thing?

46. “Please take me home, now,” I said.

47. My capacity to cause pain frightened me to the point of intimacy-paralysis. I worry where I would be now had we not gotten coffee that warm June evening.

48. He made me believe orgasms were folklore, too.

49. “With symbolic systems, it is never a matter of one isolated instance. Within a given culture, there are whole consistent patterns of symbolism. The symbolism of a culture will be manifested in the folklore of that culture.” (Bronner 2007)

50. She would sometimes decide she wanted to go to Saturday evening mass. This decision was never borne of sobriety.

51. “She is going to fuck boys Sean! Do you know how I know? Because that’s what I did! I fucked boys!”

52. “Yet we are released to such a small extent into the realm of myth that the penetration of the vagina, mythical though it be, is proposed to the sick woman in concrete and familiar terms.” (Levi-Strauss 1973)

53. The Friday after that first Thanksgiving without her, I filled up my car with gas and trekked into Long Island City alone. It was a frigid day, and I hadn’t worn socks. She was waiting for me in the threshold of the rehab, and greeted me with so much life that in that moment, I sincerely believed she was cured of her depression. Hell, she was cured of her alcoholism! Who said there was no cure? Surely they hadn’t known my mother. I had brought her leftovers from the day before. They bled together in one tiny Tupperware. She asked her counselor to microwave them and we sat together at a small plastic table, the only people in the rehab’s common room. She ate excruciatingly slow, shutting her eyes after each spoonful, inhaling through her nose and allowing the food to sit in her mouth a moment before chewing. Between bites, we spoke excitedly about the monotonies of every day. I glowed with pride when she said she couldn’t believe I had made her stuffing. I had done such a great job, she said. She was so proud of me, she said. And then the biggest fairytale of them all. “I can’t wait until next year, so we can be together.”

54. “One might say that the virgin requires a villain; however, it is actually the ‘villain’ who requires the virgin so that he may know his own desire as it is reflected back onto himself.” (Carpenter 2001)

55. “Prayer is a conversation with the universe, a dialogue with life itself. Whatever form the prayer takes, it arises from the human need to reach beyond the limitations of the empirical.” (Ikeda 2006)

56. We were giddy on nicotine and the full moon, walking along the narrow beach road with no mittens and no streetlights. He was telling me that it’s a well-known trick among guys that when you go down on a girl, you’re supposed to trace the alphabet with your tongue on her clitoris. When she starts moaning, you have reached the letter she makes when she masturbates. We laughed, both out of the absurdity of that, and because it was the only way left to generate heat on the freezing February night. Our coffees had already gone cold, and tiny purple crescents formed in our fingernails.

57. I wonder if religion could survive without transgression.

58. “But recently, at a restaurant, they grabbed their neighbors’ hands and waited for everyone to do the same – which we all uncomfortably did – then bowed their heads for a moment of silence. Could I have refused? –Anonymous” (Galanes 2010)

59. He hadn’t shut the lights off. He hadn’t taken my socks off. I consented anyway.

60. “In sum, all religion save mysticism functions negatively to repress sexuality and positively to abet man’s physical and existential problems. Myths and folktales, which Schneiderman lumps not only with each other but also with religion, treat the same issues.” (Segal 1984)

61. Having sex the first time was bad enough, but about a month into my next boyfriend, I was forced to relive it. We sat on my back porch. It was July and the air was heavy. “Why did you do it if you didn’t want to? Why did you do it again?” Cotton anger filled my mouth and I took his questions like a deserved beating.

62. “Free shipping on hard nipple mugs! Code BLACKFRIDAY”

63. “Sometimes when he'd have her nipple in his mouth, she'd whisper, 'Oh, my God.' That, too, is a form of worship. Her hips grind, pestle and mortar, cinnamon and cloves. Whenever he pulls out ... loss.” (Shire 2015)

64. My mother’s primary love affair was with Smirnoff vodka. It is sad to think about, but I imagine that the burn in her throat was congruent with some level of ecstasy that she was unable to access otherwise. I remember visiting her when she first moved to her new studio apartment in Astoria, fresh out of her fifth rehab in about three years. We got Cuban food and on the walk home, she pointed to an ad for vodka at a bus station and said, “You know, I really don’t even miss it. When I see that, I actually feel glad not to have it anymore. I don’t feel any desire to drink again.” I wondered who she was trying to convince, since we both knew she was lying. Her apartment had no furniture in it yet, excepting a folding table and two folding chairs. When we got back, we brewed some coffee and ate a slice of chocolate cake that we had picked up from a bakery down the street. We sat across from each other. The table was so small. We were so close. She probably touched my face, though I can’t really remember. I just feel like she often did that when we were so close.

65. “The concept of virginity was created by men who thought their penises were so important, it changes who a woman is.” (Source Unclear)

66. My sister collapses into my arms, sobbing. We are both sobbing. “I miss her so much.” “Me too.” We purge ourselves in this fashion for the next half hour.

67. “Anyone who does not occasionally worry that he may be a fraud almost certainly is. Nor does the worry absolve one from the charge; one may still be a fraud, just one who rightly worries about it on occasion. Likewise, anyone who does not occasionally worry that she is wrong about the existence or nonexistence of God most likely has a fraudulent belief. Worry can make the belief or unbelief genuine, but it cannot make it correct.” (Irwin 2016)

68. He hates most settings with loud music. I watch his face cloud over with pollutant memories. His lips tug down at both sides and he is gone.

69. “He smiles. The first raindrops / Go plop, plop on the roof of his room. He closes / his eyes. The naked goddess whose perfume / So teases him is plucking the harp she clasps / Between her knees. And the thunder rolls.” (Carruth 1997)

70. I am gently roused by the sensuous smell of bacon. It has such a way of entirely composing the air once it hits the pan. Half-asleep, I push my blinds up. Upon seeing the blanket of white, I leap out of bed excitedly and pad into the kitchen, where she greets me with what feels like all the sun in the world. Was she happy then? She seemed it, but I wonder now how much my younger self overlooked.

71. I didn’t even drink coffee then.

72. We drive down the long stretches of road in bumblefuck New York, laughing at corn fields and speed limits. I struggle to shift gears in his Jag, but I haven’t stalled yet, so that’s a first. I am in a pink dress, and he is in the khakis we bought two hours ago at Macy’s. We are intentionally late to the wedding rehearsal. After, we drink rum and play with our Airbnb host’s crippled dog. We say Grace in our own way.

73. “There is no more efficient way of tranquilizing a ferocious disposition in one of the rougher sex than by giving him a good cup of coffee at his breakfast.” (The New York Times 1872)

74. The next night is the wedding. After, we stop for coffee. It burns my tongue. “Why won’t you dance with me?” The August air is thick in my throat. He pulls the car over and takes off running down the dark street, leather dress shoes hitting hard and quick on the pavement. I feel sad but I don’t feel like crying. Perhaps sad is not the word. I feel worn. Couldn’t I have just danced? That is a futile question, because I know that to have danced would have been a lie. Maybe worn is not the word either. I feel empty.

75. When Lady Bird’s mom picks her up after she has sex for the first time, Lady Bird leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and allows herself to cry. I cried, too, but I still found myself wondering why she cried, which made me realize that I am not even precisely sure why I cried.

76. Maybe what is lost in that first act of having sex is simply the myth that virginity is some brand of reality. Maybe one finds themselves so unaltered following that first sexual encounter that they can’t fully process that anything actually happened. Maybe this is inherently disturbing.

77. Lady Bird claims to be disturbed because she was under the impression that the boy she first fucks was a virgin, and following sex, she learns that he was not. She complains that she has just had a false experience.

78. “(another dangerous and immoral activity called dancing)” (Levy 1986)

79. But say he had indeed been a “virgin” – would that have made her experience any more true? Is there not still falsehood simply in her belief that she would be altered by the experience of having sex for the first time?

80. “So, of course he is "changed" the same way i am ""changed" because I opened this letter from you...I was not thinking of this..now I am...now I am who I am wholly because of this exchange” (Pipolo 2016)

81. Is virginity loss an entity simply because we have constructed it as such? Because now that we have constructed it, it is impossible to avert? Are we wholly altered by our own construction?

82. Virginity is, in my mind, closely comparable to the sacrament of communion in the Catholic church. There is something sort of erotic about the whole ritual, even if the wafers taste like cardboard and the wine tastes like store-brand grape juice. They denote adulthood. An awakening.

83. Another parallel lies in that typically, this anticipated rapture denoted by either respective “first” turns out to be a massive disappointment. The receiver generally finds that not much has actually changed.

84. This is probably rooted in the fact that either respective “first” is made the fuck up.

85. Imagine all the priests who would be out of business if not for transgression.

86. But then, I wonder, maybe my feeling of having been violated was rooted in the fact that I had no mother at the time to pick me up. I couldn’t simply lean my head on her shoulder when it was over. I couldn’t lean on her at all. I didn’t know I was allowed to express my apprehension, let alone where I would even begin such a confession.

87. I found myself wondering if maybe this is what it just is supposed to be like when you lose your virginity. I found myself doing it again in an effort to feel something else. Did it feel good that time? Did you feel in love? Are you the problem?

88. “Women are talking about “Cat Person” because they see themselves in it.” (Roberts 2017)

89. “Why did you do it again? If you cried, why would you do it again?” he asks me in the car on the way home from Lady Bird. I can’t say I am surprised that we are having this conversation. I practically heard it unfold in my head during that scene, when I felt the pressure of his fingers in my palm slacken.

90. We get cappuccinos before the movie. It turns out to be quite an ordeal for me to decide what drink to get at Starbucks. I initially order an iced drink at first. Then, on second thought, I ask the barista for his opinion. Iced caramel whatever or cappuccino? He suggests the cappuccino, because it is cold out. I oblige, though upon my immediate sip of the hot cappuccino, I feel the seeds of regret plant themselves in the depths of my stomach.

91. Later, though, after exercising the necessary discipline for the cappuccino to go cold, I feel deeply grateful to the barista. This is before the scene where Lady Bird loses her virginity. She is sitting with her friend eating the communion wafers like potato chips. His hand presses firmly into mine.

Works Cited

Aunt Barbara. Letter Written on 27 August, 2010.

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Brunvard, Jon Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, Fourth Edition. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Carpenter, Laura M. “The Ambiguity of ‘Having Sex’: The Subjective Experience of Virginity Loss in the United States.” The Journal of Sex Research, 38(2): 127-39, 2001. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3813703.

Carruth, Hayden. “Cold Coffee.” The American Poetry Review, 26(6): 3, 1997. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27782523.

Cartwright, Christopher. Certamen religiosum 1st ed. (1st vol.), London, 1651.

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Foucault, Michael. “A Preface to Transgression.” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, eds. D. F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Galanes, Philip. "SOCIAL Q'S." New York Times (1923-Current file), Nov 14, 2010, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, https://login.ez-proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ez-proxy.brooklyn.cuny.edu/docview/1458413177?accountid=7286.

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“hard nipple” by whats a hard nipple? 7 June, 2009. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hard%20nipple

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Lau, Kimberly J. “Structure, Society, and Symbolism: Toward a Holistic Interpretation of Fairy Tales.” Western Folklore, 55(3): 233-43, 1996. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1500483.

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Roberts, Molly. “‘Cat Person’ is a next step in the #MeToo movement.” The Washington Post, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2017/12/11/why-cat-person-went-viral/?utm_term=.9fb4f0dfa8c8

Segal, Robert A. “Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 23(2): 211-2, 1984. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1386117.

Shire, Warsan. “Grief Has Its Blue Hands In Her Hair.” In Her Blue Body. the flap pamphlet series: United Kingdom, 2015.

(Some Buddhist) Calhoun, Ada. “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give.” The New York Times, 2015. www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/fashion/the-wedding-toast-ill-never-give.html