Sometime after my 11th birthday, a warm breeze blew through my room and turned everything in my life to sex. This change manifested itself as a translucent web, its strands converging on a hazy image of what I envisioned as sex: neon limbs, pink and orange, frenetic in motion. Along the web were the sticky dew drops of body hair and orthodontics, aching genitalia and bras, back zits and my fierce physical attraction to the members of Hanson despite my uncertainty of their gender.
Young girls (and boys) are given such conflicting ideas of what is going on during this time: “It’s all natural” is overlaid with “BE AFRAID.” Even the phonetics of the word puberty are confusing and slippery: simultaneously clinical and dirty, banal and lascivious. Most unnerving at this stage was the prospect of my mother sitting me down and attempting words like “vagina” or “masturbate” in her foreign accent. I knew all about The Talk. The Talk had to take place under soft lighting with many flower varieties present. The Talk meant acknowledging that humans had sex, my parents had sex, and I would one day have sex. I didn’t want to have The Talk.
My dread stemmed from the element of surprise. The Talk peered at me through locked doors and grazed my shins as I pulled on gym shorts. What I didn’t know was that I was already giving myself The Talk constantly, by watching and re-watching the raunchy “American Pies” of the late 90s, or exploring Judy Blume’s adult oeuvre. Who needs “Fifty Shades of Grey” when you have “The Power”?
My self-schooling led to an uneven but burgeoning understanding of the intricacies of sex. This depraved knowledge made it all the worse to imagine my wholesome, beautiful mother sullying the image I had of her with an unexpected explanation of erections. No, sex was my own cross to bear.
One day a friend casually informed me that her mother had bought her deodorant, motioning to its place on her night stand. I was in shock. Deodorant fell somewhere on the sex web between periods and whatever a diaphragm was. She said it was “no big deal,” but I knew it had been a close call. Her mom could have easily used the unassuming hygienic pretense as a catalyst for a more dangerous discussion, and if it could happen to my friend, it could happen to me. My Talk could be right around the corner.
Ultimately (maybe blessedly) my parents took a more nuanced approach than I’d anticipated, and my Talk ended up not as a singularly momentous occasion but a scattering of innocuous hints and chats. None were deeply scarring or even embarrassing enough to warrant painful recollection over drinks 15 years later. One or two books with titles like “My Changing Body” or “A Blossoming Lady” found their way onto my shelf, but any awkward parental dialogue has thankfully blurred in my memory.
Surprisingly, as an adult I’ve taken the opposite approach to talking about sex. I’m still relatively obsessed with it, but rather than shy away from the topic in conversation, I tend to seek it out. It’s easy to end up talking about sex; as an idea it colors nearly every aspect of our lives. On some level we never really escape The Talk. Instead it becomes a part of a different, grown-up narrative. One that’s so important that we look for it wherever it may be hiding.
This essay originally appeared in the Body issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Body issue here or read My Hairy Legs and Me: A Puberty Story.