Snow Leopard

“Well I’ll be honest,” I texted with tentative thumbs, “I’m probably not as experienced as you. I mean, I’m a virgin haha…”

I sighed at the light press of send and read the message again. I was relieved to be saying this through the protective shield of my phone and not face to face with those intense eyes and all-knowing smile. I stared at my innocent white letters surrounded in the perfect blue bubble.

My very first boyfriend replied quickly, black against gray. “I don’t mind J”

I have always been adverse to sexuality. Acting since I was twelve, I have encountered the odd actor with whom I didn’t exactly want to be alone in a dressing room. The older man hovering too much when I changed costumes backstage, the sexually frustrated cast-mate who wanted to really kiss and not stage it, the musical dance-partner who had me sit on his lap between numbers, the bisexual actress who touches too much. This defensiveness delayed relationships for me, which I am entirely glad of because I found my passion in acting and writing and put all my efforts into those skills. Though I find myself being 21, about to graduate college, and still a virgin.

            My virginity does not define me. I do not stand before our campus fire pit, (which is far too reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire to take seriously,) and declare my virgin-hood for all to hear. Yet, it must be obvious because I am not always treated like other college age women. It could be the delayed chuckle I make when a certain joke goes careening over my head, or the outright questions I ask my all too patient friends that lends proof to my status.

            No matter what factors into other people’s assumptions of me, I am put into the category: naïve. Suddenly, classmates younger than I am, refuse to show me what pictures they are laughing at. I am talked to as though my lacking experience in just one area makes me somehow less worldly or intelligent.

            College virgins are an extremely unanalyzed little species, even a study that took twenty three years realized how understudied they have been. Part of the problem studying virgins is how reluctant they are to admit they have not had sex and what reasons have prevented them from sex, especially males. Yet here we are, silently skulking around like the endangered snow leopard. But why the silence? Why is a virgin so pressured in college to deny or conform that they end up never sharing that aspect about themselves?  

            First, look at high school. In a public high school, in my experience, being a female virgin was the safest category in which an adolescent could fall. Imagine the scene in Hunchback of Notre Dame where the poor gypsy mother is about to be killed by Count Frollo, but at the title cathedral, she screams “Sanctuary!” and is spared. Well, Count Frollo is every unforgiving teenager hunting for rumors to mold into living nightmares of disgusting gossip. But if the helpless gypsies say they are a virgin, there is nothing to mold. Yes, other subjects could be targeted by bullies: looks, weight, acne, sexuality etc., but a bullet was dodged if a female remained abstinent.  

A male virgin is ridiculed until either surrendering and having a sexual encounter, or feeling shame and inferiority among male peers. A non-virgin female was labelled “easy,” which was the kindest of the disgusting stereotypes. Fair or not, (certainly not,) that was high school.

            Now, those boys who were ruthlessly bullied in high school have joined fraternities, hoping to have as much sex as inhumanly possible. Suddenly, the non-virgin ladies are goddesses, worshiped and constantly pursued by those leg-humping man-puppies. I am a repellent, the opposite of what college guys desire. I wear the labels, “high maintenance” and “too much work.” Thus, my inner snow leopard retreats into solitude.  

            During a break in our rehearsal, when all the seniors go outside to smoke under the archway outside the theatre, I was pulled aside by the stage manager. She was a tall redheaded bear of a woman, a veteran of the college party scene. She took me by the shoulder and bestowed her wisdom upon me, a feeble freshman.

            “There’s a house down the street, Em,” she heaved sour smoke into the fall chill of evening, “If you’re ever invited there, just say no. That place is really, really bad. If you do end up there, and they pass a plate or a bowl around, just say no. Just, just say no, hun. You won’t like it. That place was even rough for me.”

            She cackled a smoker’s laugh, but the lines in her face showed regret. I knew which house she meant: a dilapidated white plantation style house with a Greek tapestry draped over the balcony, usually decorated for Christmas or Halloween, completely abandoned looking during the day. At night, large and lifted trucks lined the street around the house and music throbbed through its hollow foundation. I held no interest in going there anyway, not that I was ever invited.

            Another friend, a hybrid between the good Catholic conservative gal and the absolute party animal, (far more common than you’d think,) told me she too was a virgin. She lived unaware of a very specific reputation among the male party-goers of the dreaded white house.  

            “She does everything but. Well, everything BUTT.” Snickers ensued.

            Four years later and still, never have I ever, attended a college party. These types of guys, stocked with “plates” and “bowls” of no-thank-you products and fresh-out of respect, do not appeal to me.

There is another category of college men, especially in the South, who would charitably accept a poor unfortunate virgin. The Christian Male. Picture thin legs exposed by pastel shorts and plaid button up, brown Sperry’s, and some kind of printed sock which they find makes them unique. The Christian Male is he who seeks a virtuous bride who goes to church Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, VBS, Youth Camp, Youth choir… Even though I did not check any of those confessional boxes, some thought I could still be saved. But after insisting that I was spiritual not religious, and disdained marriage, and focus only on acting, they write me off as unworthy. Then the mood changes to a dark interest in my sinful career path.

            “So, would you be naked or do nudity?”

            “Would you have sex on screen?”

            Sigh!  Alas, I am too high maintenance for the Frat Boy, and too godless for the Christian Male.

            2,405 students attend my University. I wonder how many would admit they were in the same predicament as I am. How many Frat Boys were turned down until they resorted to pack-mentality and joined a group? How many Christian Males are looking for wives so they can finally check that one empty box. Susan Sprecher and Stanislav Treger found that men are far less up front about their virginity than women, but women reported more pressure to change their virginity status. How many young men and women finally give in and conform to the majority?

            This conforming could have an academic effect. According to “READING, WRITING, AND SEX: THE EFFECT OF LOSING VIRGINITY ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE,” virgins have higher grade point averages than sexually active students. Though my grades remained strong, it was my commitment to a relationship (without sex,) that made me feel there could be adverse effects for me.

            “I just don’t write as much anymore,” I explained, the words hurting as they left my mouth.

            “And that’s my fault?” The all-knowing smile vanished, distorted by confusion and anger. We were breaking up, another act I never experienced before.

            I paused.

            “No. But I need to be able to write, and I can’t distract myself with-”

            “So, I’m a distraction.”

            What a way to end a relationship and hurt a good man. Well done, Emma. It is difficult, to tell someone you do not want to have sex with them because it is just too serious and your career and creativity come first. They stop listening after: you do not want to have sex with them. It is not a believable enough excuse, a career. It must be them. Something must be wrong with them.

            I closed my eyes and rubbed my pounding forehead, unable to look at what I was doing to the person in front of me. Never again.  

            I learned from my first and only relationship that I must  be a college virgin. I cannot focus on school, and acting, and writing, and a companion. With homework and memorizing sometimes 600 lines of play dialogue a semester, with as much writing as I could squeeze in between everything, there is just no time to have a serious partnership.

            There is another option which has been brought up to me by ladies who were well versed in the art of hookups. One night stands. I cannot consider one night stands without considering STDs. CL Shannon and JD Klausner found that of the 20 million new STIs in the United States each YEAR, half of the cases are of people my age. 1 in 4 adolescent females (15-24) have an STI. The rate of STIs for women and men who have sex with men have been rising since 2014. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.

            So here is the snow leopard, passing the camera to show a glimpse of the mysterious being that is the college virgin. Forgive my shyness, my aloofness, and my cynicism toward romance. The environment of college is not conducive to my “shortcomings,” and so must I hide.  

Works Cited

Sabia, J. Joseph. “READING, WRITING, AND SEX: THE EFFECT OF LOSING VIRGINITY ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE.” Wiley Online Library, 17 October 2007, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1465-7295.2007.00056.x. Accessed 21 January 2020.

Shannon, C.L. and Klausner, J.D. “The Growing Epidemic of Sexually Transmitted Infections in Adolescents: A Neglected Population.” NCBI, 30 February 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5856484/. Accessed 21 January 2020.

“Student Population at Cumberland University.” (CU) College Tuition Compare, Accessed 21 January 2020.

Sprecher, Susan and Treger, Stanislav. “Virgin College Students’ Reasons for and Reactions to Their Abstinence From Sex: Results From a 23-Year Study at a Midwestern U.S. University.” Taylor and Francis Online, 10 February 2015, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00224499.2014.983633?scroll=top&needAccess=true. Accessed 21 January 2020.

Sprecher, Susan and Regan, Pamela C. “College virgins: How men and women perceive their sexual status.” Taylor and Francis Online, 11 January 2010, Accessed 21 January 2020.

Art by Sheldon McMurtry

The Girl

            “Hi beautiful angelfish! Have you had a mermazing day?” The words vomited out of her mouth as if she rehearsed them religiously before my brother and I arrived. 

            “Yeah it’s been pretty good,” I tossed in to the stale air of that apartment room on the second floor. I was taught to treat everyone with respect. Had my mothers’ voice not have been disturbing my quiet thoughts, I would have walked right through the door without hesitating to ignore the girl. That’s what she was to me. The girl. 

            I dropped my things on to the carpet next to the couch. It was a dull couch, smelling as if it was something they got for free somewhere, maybe sitting at the end of a long driveway with a “please take, it’s free!” sign leaned against it. Cigarettes, cheap ones, and the stench of a litter box protruded my nose. They didn’t have a cat. I had no other options, being that the living room consisted of the couch, a small tv on a stand, and now my stuff, so I sat down. 

            “So glad you could make it baby, where’s Daniel?” The words fell off my dad’s lips in one long breath, slurred together as if he was talking in cursive. 

            “He was right behind me, should be in here any time now.” As I glanced around locking my eyes with anything other than my dad’s, the door opened and my brother walked in. I could tell he didn’t wanna be there. I couldn’t say a thing though. I didn’t either. The corners of his smile stayed pointed down, just like they were stuck. And he never lifted his head completely straight up anymore; he just lifted it high enough to see you. 

            I stayed put on the couch for a while. I had nothing more to do other than find something interesting on my phone. There was a boy I went to school with. I threw myself all over him even though his hair and his voice bothered me. I didn’t mind; I took what I could get. You would think a 12 year old girl would be getting lost in a diary or in a game. I was getting lost in people, creating versions of the ones around me that were better than they really were. It was easier that way. 

            My dad came near to me, falling into the space to my right. I didn’t want him to get close; that’s when I cold see his eyes. They were foggy and shadowed like when you’re driving late at night in the rain.  The car headlights uncover only a few feet in front of you. The rest is hidden and dark and not a place you want to shine a light. 

            I could tell when he opened his mouth. The smell still assaults me and it’s been 8 years. I can’t smell alcohol without feeling as though I need to tie my heart together with a rope to prevent it from falling apart all over again. I smell alcohol once and then I smell it everywhere. I create the smell when it’s no longer there, determined to find someone new to blame. Marsala wine. He was drinking Marsala wine. I could tell because he made Chicken Marsala all the time. I could never forget the way he cooked the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme in a blend that tasted better every time I put it in my mouth.  His favorite part was the alcohol. 

            He placed his left hand on my legs for far too long. He laid his head on my shoulder, “I love you baby. I loveyou, I love youIlove you. So glad you’re here baby. You’re here, on Christmas, Eve. I love you.” He spoke to me in a tone that made it hard to understand who he was trying to convince. I knew he loved me, but the more he said it the less I knew. 

            The girl stayed off in the corner of the kitchen for a while. My eyes would catch her pacing during commercial breaks of River Monsterson Animal Planet. I really didn’t care to see some guy catch the world’s most venomous animal by hand, but it put my dad to sleep. 

            The interruption of her shrill voice woke my dad from his nap. “Rheanie, let’s play a board game or something.” 

            The 4 of us made our way to the kitchen table. It was bigger than I thought it would be. It filled all the space allotted for a dining room. I couldn’t tell you how long we played Pirate’s of the Caribbean Yahtzee, or what we ate for dinner that night. But I remember the girl’s face. She was 21, barely. She appeared as if she was 13. Her glasses were brown and the frames were thin. Her hair was pulled back in to a low ponytail containing her stop sign strands. I was a child and even I was judgmental of her Sleeping Beauty t-shirt. Her mermaid-scale pants. Her purple shoes. It didn’t make sense. 

            She would bite her nails starting from her thumb to her pinky and back again. My body knew she was nervous before my head did. I couldn’t shake off my thumping heartbeat and my bouncing leg. 

            “Come here baby, come here.” I hesitated but obeyed my dad’s command to come sit on his lap. The closer I got, the faster I wanted to run. I didn’t want to smell him again.                   

            I sat across his legs, our bodies making an x. He laid his hand on my legs for far too long. He pulled the hair off of my right shoulder, and tucked the locks behind my ear. His breath was warm and rich. His lips lined my ear and his new catchphrase started as a whisper.

            “Renee, you are so selfish. You are so selfish. You are so selfish. I want you to know that. Daniel, you know your sister is selfish? You are so selfish Renee.”

            “Dad, enough, Please stop.” My brother released the words I couldn’t. It didn’t change a thing. 

            His whispers grew in strength. “You are so selfish. You’re such a butthole. Why do you have to be so selfish Renee? I want you to know you’re a selfish butthole.” 

            I ached. I had never ached before. I also froze. I caught a glimpse of a passing car outside the living room window. Where were they going? To dinner? Home? I wanted to go home.

            “Renee you are so selfish.”

            “Dad let her go. Renee come on, Renee come on, Dad stop, let her go.”

            I tried to stand in reverence to my brother’s wishes. I couldn’t move. My dad had his arms wrapped fully around my chest and back. He was squeezing, and tightening, and fixing his grip. He was holding one wrist with the other hand, using his joints as support. 

            “Dad, that’s fucking enough!” 

            I shook and bent like a fish in someone’s hand. I leaned forward and back, and forward and back. 

            My dad soon released, as if he was unaware that he had a hold on me for so long. I stood and ran with sights on my brother’s long arms. 

         “Dad. What the fuck! I’m so, damnit. I can’t do this!” My brother slammed his hands to his temples, running them along his head. His fingers gripped, pulling so tightly on his hair that his head lifted. His eyes pointed to the ceiling but they remained shut. 

            The girl sprung from her chair as if she was chained and they finally broke. “Let it out, Daniel, let it out. It’s okay.” 

            I looked at the girl. Her eyes swelled and her face became the color of her hair as if they had bled together. There was no longer a line to separate the two. The girl was red. Red. 

            “We come all this way to see you, dad, and this is what you do? You act like this? I’m so fucking done dad.” My brother paced the tile floor for so long a pathway began to form. Like years ago when travelers made their way through the forest in the same spots leaving trails of where they had been. 

            “You’re drunk. You’re so drunk, you’re always drunk. I can’t stand to be around you anymore, I can’t do it.” 

            It was in this moment I witnessed what it looked like to watch someone lose themselves. My brother was collapsing under the weight of all that second floor apartment kept concealed. I wanted to stand there in awe of him yelling at my dad for hours. I didn’t want him to stop.

            I turned to face my dad, preparing myself to see him retaliate. But, he remained in the chair. He sat there unaware. Daydreaming, probably, about when we would finally leave. If we left he could get in his car in search of something stronger than Marsala wine. He could approach the girl again, and he could shower her in affection and assault, compliments and attacks, sex and abuse. She was already red.

             I didn’t care for the girl, so I was ready to leave.

My father turned his head in my direction. His face was pointed toward my feet, but his dirt eyes lifted and landed right on mine. I couldn’t look away. I forgot how. 

            I saw myself being carried out of Walmart on a summer afternoon. I was being held as if I only weighed 2 pounds. My dirty blonde hair was flowing over the back of my father. I was almost asleep, getting lost in his arms and tangled in his Jesus tattoo. I felt heated fingers press against my cheek. My father brushed my hair off of my right shoulder, and he tucked the locks behind my ear. 

            “Renee, we need to leave now. We can’t stay, can’t stay here like this. I don’t care if we leave before we planned to. It’s really time to go.” 

            I broke the daze between my father and I and turned to gather my things. I hadn’t stayed long enough to take anything out, so it was accomplished in an instant. 

            “Here, take all of yall’s gifts. Please take them I’m sorry we couldn’t open them.” The girl hurried around, throwing a stack of presents in to one larger cardboard box. Did she think that’s why we came? Did she think that’s what we wanted? Was she jealous that we could leave that place and she was stuck?

            My brother approached me, enclosing my baby hand in his. His hands were wet and balmy and safe. We exited the second floor apartment, fleeing toward the steps, skipping 2, and then 1, and then 3. We were running and rounding the corners of the buildings. His blue car was lost in a field of others who were unlucky enough to call the vicinity around that second floor apartment home. I wanted to keep running until my ankles disintegrated. I wanted to run out in to the street alongside the cars. I wanted to run through the red lights and back again. I wanted to run back in to that apartment building and break my dad in to a thousand shattered pieces. And then I wanted to run those pieces of him to the bridge above the interstate and release them. 

            But my brother and I got in his car and we went home. Neither of us said a word.

            I still feel my dad’s arms around me. Tightening, squeezing, gripping. I’m always reminded of how I can find security in his large arms but I have yet to fully trust them again. How am I supposed to be held by the man who gives me the reasons to need an embrace?

            I still feel my dad’s hand on my legs for far too long. Never crossing the line but coming close enough that it’s only blurry now. He tells me I look beautiful and it makes me feel violated. To wear a crop top, a swimsuit, or a tight dress is something I try not to do around him. He fell in love with the girl and got turned on when she would come home in her Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and Ariel hair. Why should I expect him to look at me like I’m just his daughter and nothing more? I know he would never take anything too far. But, has he thought about me the same way he thought about the girl when he saw her for the first time when she was 17? Does he look at his daughter and see the same thing? 

            I still feel my dad’s hand brushing back my hair. I feel it maneuvering the locks in to place behind my ear. I hate the way I look with my hair behind my ears. I feel like a doll. I don’t feel like a daughter. I don’t want my hair pushed back anymore. 

Art by Sarah Simic

Chasing the Bull

Something you need to know about me is that at one point I was a fetus bull. This is the story of how I became the old bull.

“No, Austin, you can’t hear The Story because you are a fetus bull,” John says.

         “I’m a what?” I ask.

         “You have to be at least a young bull before you can hear The Story. There’s fetus bull, young bull, and old bull those are the rankings.”

         “But Chris and Russell are freshmen too, why do they get to hear it?”

         “Because they have ranked up to young bull status,” Baylor interjects.

         John, frustrated, continues, “You’re not ready, Austin. You are not experienced enough to hear The Story.”

         And so, I spent the rest of cross-country practice running by myself as Russell and Chris got to hear The Story, while I was a “fetus bull.” My mind wandered and wandered about what exactly The Story could be, and just how could I rank up to the status of a young bull.

         The next day at practice, as if to rub it in my face, The Story was all the team talked about. Grant going on about how it’s “the greatest story ever told.” Baylor describing how The Story forever changed his perspective on life itself. I knew they were just messing with me. The Story can’t be that good? It can’t actually change your life. There’s no way. I’d tell myself, “They’re just messing me with me.”

         A week later I was practically begging to hear The Story. The fact that I wasn’t allowed to hear it only made me want to hear it even more. Along came John’s point system. If someone during practice said something funny, he’d get a point. If you said something stupid, you lose a point. “If you can get enough points maybe you’ll be able to reach young bull status,” said John.

         Somehow after the first day, I had negative twenty-five points. Never really went up after that. Two weeks had gone by, and The Story was still what the team was talking about. John bragging that his dad passed it down to him and that it is a “sacred honor” to hear it. I was still pleading my case that I was ready to be a young bull, but I was still fetus bull. Fetus became my nickname. They’d say, “Good job there, Fetus.” Or “Hey, Fetus.”

         The year’s cross-country season ended, my first one, and I was still no where close to young bull status; however, with spring, came track season. At this point it had been six months, The Story wasn’t talked about unless I brought up if I was still a fetus, which they took no qualms in reminding me that I was. One day at track practice, I pushed just enough, describing how much I’d grown since the start of freshman year and that I was ready for The Story.

         “Austin, if you can get under two-minutes and thirty seconds in the half mile or five minutes and thirty seconds in the mile, we’ll tell you The Story.”

         John had given me a chance. I spent the rest of track conditioning training as hard as ever. I was determined to hear that story at any cost. Along comes the final race of my freshman year track season. I was going to run the half mile, and I was going to run it in under two-minutes and thirty seconds. The boys were hyping me up, telling me I could do it. Grant reminding me just how awesome The Story really was.

         I step up to that starting line only focused on one thing: The Story. Nothing else mattered. The gun goes off, starting the race. I did not care about my place. All I cared about was breaking two-minutes and thirty seconds. I made a quick decision at the start of the race to slightly increase my speed to be with the front of the pack. I blinked and I was already in third place. I needed to hold this place. In the last one-hundred meters, I stretch my legs as much as I can towards the finish line with everything I can humanly give, but it wasn’t enough. No matter how much I wanted, no matter how much I needed to run just a little bit faster, I couldn’t. My time comes in 2:30.8. Eight milliseconds were what prevented from hearing The Story, of becoming a young bull. Sure, I didn’t get to hear The Story, but I was ecstatic that I ran that fast because of it. Coach Perry called it my best race of the year.

         The next six months through the cross-country season go by in the blink of an eye. Due to unforeseen circumstances that occurred in the summer of freshman and sophomore year, that I won’t go into detail since it doesn’t pertain to this, I didn’t get to train as much as I wanted to. But as soon as I could, I ran like I had never done before. I honestly couldn’t tell if I was training so hard as a genuine love of running or if it really was just an obsession with hearing  The Story. When track season started up once again, I was ready.

         The first meet of the year at McGavock High School and coach had me slated for the mile race. I had six months of training and it had been a year and a half since I found out about The Story. My sole motivation for this race was The Story. I had to hear it more than ever.

         There at the start line, I had mixed feelings: excitement, nervousness, and a surge of energy I have to this day never felt again. The gun goes off. I can’t even remember the first lap. The second lap begins. I have no clue of my place, but I just didn’t care. All I wanted was to hear The Story. The third lap begins, and the race starts taking its toll on me. I can feel myself slowing down. For over a year, I was brought down with the nickname “Fetus” and not allowed to hear this great story everyone was talking about, and I’d let all that go because of a little side stitch? “The pain was temporary, but I’ll never forget The Story,” I’d tell myself repeatedly.

         Desire, obsession, and need to prove myself mixed in with a little fatigue, and I have never felt the euphoria that came with that last lap. It wasn’t even a race anymore. It was a chase. I was chasing the bull and I wasn’t going to let it get away no matter how awful I felt. And so, I sprinted faster than I ever had in my life, giving the race every ounce of strength I could muster. I reach the finish line. Five-minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

         John and I were running our cool down on the trails surrounding McGavock. I look over to him and ask, “Am I ready?” He says yes and I remember what he says next verbatim.

         “A young bull and an old bull are sitting on top of a cliff, overlooking a pasture. In the valley below is a great herd of cows. The young bull says to the old bull, ‘Let’s run down there and fuck one of them.’ And the old bull replies, ‘No, let’s walk down there and fuck all of them.’”

         That was The Story. I had spent a year and a half expecting this great story, but that was all. He didn’t even make it up, it’s a famous joke. But I wasn’t disappointed, and just like they said, it did change my life. The lesson I took away from it all was that when rushing through life, you don’t get as much enjoyment than when you take things slowly. Had I been rushed and told The Story as soon as it was brought up, I would have missed out on running such a great race, but because I took things slowly I got more from The Story than probably any of the other guys on the team. I more than ever understand the philosophy of the Old Bull. The Old Bull is wise, he doesn’t rush through life, and ultimately gets more out of it than the immature, reckless young bull who just wants to get things done as quickly as possible. The Story, regardless of its crassness, changed my life as it made me view life differently. No longer was I going to live for the weekend or the next vacation, but instead to take my time and enjoy things as they come. To live in the present. To this day The Story is one of the most memorable and unique experiences I’ve ever had, but most of all it showed me that if I’m dedicated and work hard enough, I can accomplish anything. 

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN