Arms crossed, sneakered-foot propped up, I deliberately lean against the grimy wall outside the bathroom of the club. It’s my first visit to Berlin. I feign patience as I wait for Cole, my travel companion, to finish pissing. Berliners strut past: A woman with a buzz cut wearing a dog collar, a man holding a leather whip, two women with matching face tattoos, a man wearing a garter and thigh-high heels. It was a relief to leave the States. On the eve of my 25th birthday, I feel solid, unquestionable anonymity: freedom. I feel like I can get away with anything, short of murder. I feel like an artist, not an imitation — the real deal.
The days leading up to Berlin included substances I had never dared to touch before — magic mushrooms and truffles. In our Amsterdam Airbnb, I stood naked in front of a pink lily while it bloomed and died before my eyes. Then there was Antwerp, where Cole’s friend Steff fed us sushi and Belgian beer, before he eventually fed me his Belgian dick. And now, here I am, feeling lucky to lean up against a slimy wall in Berlin, wanting to capture the way the dirt has accumulated in the corners where the wall meets the floor.
To protect everyone’s anonymity, “No photo. No video” is written on the wall of the entrance, followed by some German words I don’t understand. I peel the round black sticker with the club’s logo off of my iPhone camera lens — breaking the only rule. But I have to capture this feeling, so I unlock my iPhone and prepare to take a picture of the staircase I never want to forget: the way the light filters down from the floor above, the way the dust particles make the stairwell hazy, how the entire environment felt dirty but not disgusting. I position my camera, snap a shot. The flash accidentally goes off.
“Come with me.”
I hear the words before I see the man. A seven-foot trench coat — straight out of The Matrix — starts walking toward the outer patio. I follow.
From a very young age, whenever I got into anything that closely resembled trouble, my father told me, “Fall on your sword.” Which, taken literally, is interesting. Surely, not every offense I have committed requires diving onto a blade. But in this moment, with my father’s voice in my head, I dive face-first.
“I am so sorry, I’m an artist. I was just trying to capture the moment. I don’t ever want to forget this moment — ”
The cold air hits my face. I am wearing a black mesh top and black high-waisted Levi’s. My tomato-red fur coat and leopard-print scarf are in the coat check. I am about to get kicked out of the club sans coat. I am about to freeze my ass off.
“Really, I am so sorry. I am such a fucking idiot, really, you have no idea — ”
“Do you know the Pratt Institute?” He looks at me from the corner of his eye.
Desperate, I respond: “Yes. Of course. I go to Columbia.”
His tone is stern: “I went there.”
He stops where we can both see the front door — opening and closing, opening and closing.
He points to a sign, his expression frozen: “Read me that sign.”
I fall on my sword harder — at this point I am willing to swallow the blade and let it penetrate me like beef and bell peppers on a shish kebab: “I’m so sorry, I’m an idiot — ”
“Read me the sign!”
“No photo. No video. And whatever that says in German — I am so sorry.”
“Read it again.”
“No photo. No video. I’m a fucking idiot — I am so sorry.”
“There’s a reason we have this sign when you enter. There’s a reason why we ask you to put a sticker on your phone.”
“I know, I’m so — ”
“It’s not a matter of not doing it. It’s a matter of not getting caught.”
He continues: “Now go put a sticker on.”
I nod, I thank him, I put on a sticker, I thank him again, and I run back to the bathroom to look for Cole. I find him, eyes bugging out of his big head.
“Where were you — ”
In a single breath, words erupt from my mouth like lightning: “I almost got kicked out of the club and I’m sorry but the bouncer said something that I think captures my relationship to my sexuality in a way that I think changed my life, but I think I’m OK. Fuck! I’ve never been in trouble before — well, except for when I got kicked out of science class in the seventh grade for talking too much, but that’s it. OK. I’m OK. I’m OK. I’m OK. Fuck! Let’s go get fucked up!”
I was 8 years old, sitting in my mom’s silver Lexus SUV on the way to ice-skating practice, driving along the 134 freeway from Pasadena to Burbank, past endless palm trees, red-tiled rooftops, Los Angeles sprawl cast in smog.
Almost every Fourth of July, my family would drive up the hill from our house to see the lights beaming from those rooftops. One time, my brothers and I — the Pinsky triplets — were huddled together under a thick blanket on the hood of the SUV when my mother told us, “All of those lights are Mommy’s jewels.” Whenever I see the lights of Los Angeles at night, I can’t help but think that they are all hers.
But on the way to ice-skating practice that day, with the sun shining overhead, Mommy offered one of her darkest jewels. “When you lose your virginity,” she said, “your father is going to broadcast it on the radio.”
I learned young that if I ever did anything wrong — like have sex — I would get caught, pants down, in front of the whole nation. Mom made it clear that America was watching. So I have always felt the eyes of the world on me, whether or not they actually were there.
I know now that there is no universe in which my father would actually have publicly announced on live radio that I had been penetrated. But my mother’s offhand comment fired off neurons in my 8-year-old brain, cementing the pathways that would forge future thoughts. The phrase “When you lose your virginity, your father is going to broadcast it on the radio” became my mantra to live by. Her remark struck fear into my heart in the way that, I imagine, religion does for normal people.
As the co-host of Loveline for more than 30 years, internist and drug-addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky, my father, gave medically based sex advice on Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM (and for four years, on MTV). Later, on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, he sat opposite drug-addicted celebrities with his legs crossed, his hands clasped, his gray hair neatly combed, and a concerned expression behind his wire-framed glasses as he asked, “Were you abused as a child?”
Loveline started in 1983 when a friend of a friend asked my father, then 24 and a fourth-year med student, if he wanted to join a new late-night radio show. They needed a doctor, of sorts. People kept calling in with medical questions, and the DJ was not equipped with the proper knowledge. That’s how, with his medical books in tow, my dad found himself answering sex questions about red bumps and flaky foreskin on a segment called “Ask a Surgeon.” He soon found that the American public was grossly undereducated when it came to sex. Desperate teens and young adults called in with questions about sex, relationships and drug addiction that they were too afraid to ask anyone else. The internet as we know it did not yet exist. You couldn’t just type “How many times is too many times to masturbate” or “How do I stop using meth?” into a search bar. Instead you had to call, wait your turn, and pray to your god that you got the chance to ask Dr. Drew.
I heard Loveline on the radio for the first time after I got my driver’s license. At 16, I would turn on KROQ-FM after a long night of studying at my best friend Cate’s house and let Dad’s voice guide me home. Prior to that, I’d hardly ever heard my father talk about sex.
Contrary to what most people assumed, my father didn’t talk about sex at the dinner table. I only remember one night, in the fifth grade, when my father attempted to initiate the sex talk. The specifics are lost, mostly because I plugged my ears and screamed at the top of my lungs, “School already told us about this!” Someone at the radio station had given him a couple of stuffed-animal representations of sexually transmitted diseases as some sort of promo. The one that stared at me from the dining room table was a pink, swirly snake-looking cartoon rendering of syphilis; its hard plastic eyes and phony sewed-on smile stared deep into my soul. My brothers, both also receiving their first sex talk, sat there slack-jawed. I chucked the stuffed syphilis to the ground and sprinted out of the dining room.
The next conversation came when I found a banana-flavored condom in my mom’s desk drawer. I picked it up and asked, “What’s this? Smells funny.” My mother promptly took it out of its package and demonstrated how to apply a condom on the ballpoint pen she had just been writing with. I’m grateful that my mom armed me with such integral technical knowledge. But the overall message I got as a child was that having sex would sully me irreparably. I would never do it. The nation would never have to know about me losing my virginity.
However, despite my attachment to the virginity myth and the twisted logic that ruled my childhood, I have always felt sexual. Four years old, in a feverish haze brought on by the flu, I humped the giant stuffed cotton-candy-pink rabbit that the Easter Bunny had brought me for being a good girl and having given up my pacifier, which I’d been told was “going to all of the other babies who needed them.” Rubbing myself, I was instinctively trying to make myself feel good, feel better — to fight the illness with an eruption of butter in my insides.
I remember sneaking into my parents’ room late at night to turn on their bedside television and find channels that showed men and women kissing, the warm burning in my stomach keeping my eyes open.
I have always been boy crazy. My first kiss was in preschool, under a tire that was half-buried in the ground. Then there were the boyfriends. In first grade there was Clayton Predino, in second grade Zach Gorter, third grade Devin Napier, fourth grade Devin Napier and Zach Gorter, fifth grade Zach Gorter, sixth, seventh and eighth grade Zach Gorter — until there was Ted Campbell, who was older and went to a neighboring public school. Ted broke up with me after a year and a half because I wouldn’t let him finger me — at the age of 14, I was nowhere near ready for anything below the belt. I held onto my purity, tight.
But still — boys, boys, boys — there were always boys. Because I love boys. I love kissing them. I love the way they get all sweaty doing nothing. I love the way they have dirt under their fingernails and strong jawlines. I love skinny ones. I love fat ones. I love when they smell like the earth or even Axe body spray. I have always loved boys, boys, boys.
But every so often, the boy I like-liked listened to my Dad on the radio. More than once I was put in this very situation: Not facing each other, the silence between us making the air dense and hard to breath, the boy I had a crush on muttered, “So, like, is it true that your dad is the sex guy?”
I always laughed too loud, too hard, always embarrassed when the same question came up, time and time again: “Ha. Yeah, I guess. I mean, yeah — ”
Enter now through June 27
Win $3,000 and a lot more!
“So, like, does he talk to you about sex stuff?”
It felt like they were testing to see what I knew. Boys expected me to know about sex in the way that my dad did. Really, I knew nothing, except how to put a banana-flavored condom onto a ballpoint pen. But these boys were learning from their bedside radios nightly, and they expected that I was learning at my dinner table. In response, I’d silently retreat deep inside myself, promptly cutting off contact. Later, they’d inevitably ask over AOL Instant Messenger or in the school hallways, “What did I do wrong?” I’d continue the silent treatment, unable to articulate what it was they’d done. But now I can see that I’d wanted them to verify their interest; I’d wanted them to see me. And I’d wondered, were they really seeing me, or were they hearing my father’s voice inside their head?
I grab Cole by the hand and start sprinting up the stairs of the club. We enter a dark hallway full of doors, the dust making the floor hazy, dreamlike. I open doors, close them. I look in and see people with shaved heads and dog collars lying on the ground and kissing. At the end of the hall is a room with a ceiling full of disco balls. Cole buys us beer as I start to dance to shitty techno music. I crank my neck and look straight up at the ceiling, noticing the varying sizes of disco balls: tiny, medium, large. One day, I decide, I will fill an entire ceiling in my home the exact same way.
Cole hands me a cold bottle of German weiss beer; the condensation drips down my fingers in the heat of the dark room. We flail side by side like Pee-wee Herman at a disco, until I get tired of the music. I grab Cole’s hand, lead him through a room with a stripper pole to another room with a fog machine and different shitty techno music. We close our eyes and dance again.
I check my phone for the time — it’s only 11:45 p.m. The adrenaline from getting in trouble turns into lethargy. I lean into Cole and shout, “I know I said I wasn’t going to do drugs because I’d give myself a migraine, but if I don’t do drugs I am going to fall asleep!” He shouts back, “OK!”
Cole loves Berlin. When we’d met in college in 2012, it was a merging of souls. A flamboyant gay boy who looked like a steampunk Tommy Pickles from Rugrats and a chubby girl with hot-pink hair screaming “I can definitely twerk!” at every musical theater party. We both demanded attention in every single way. Five years later, in the apartment we shared on 110th Street in New York, all he could talk about was dancing way past sunrise and eating currywurst and doner kebabs. And so, his hedonistic tales of Berlin had convinced me to dip into my savings and buy an impromptu ticket to Europe. Was the decision financially irresponsible? Absolutely. Morally bankrupt? I didn’t know. But I was slogging through the thesis semester of my MFA at Columbia, and writing about my family was getting the better of me. I was finding it hard to get out of bed. I was 30 minutes late to everything. My Lexapro wasn’t keeping me out of the dark pit of depression. The only time I felt present in my body was when my “slam-piece” (the man I was having sex with) came over to my apartment, slapped me across the face and called me a dirty slut. My face burned as I felt a pang in my chest, the insult feeling better than nothing because it was something. The slur wrenched me into the present, but not present enough to cum. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find release. But I also felt like I deserved it: the slaps, the inability to cum.
Everything came back to feeling heartbroken about my family. I knew I had to write my story, but I felt unceasing guilt for my lack of discretion and loyalty. How dare I write about my family at all?
Cole and I enter the hallway again, completely unsure of how to acquire drugs. But I decide to demand attention in the best way I know how: unabashedly. I pick a room without a door — just an empty doorframe — and sit down on a tattered couch next to the most handsome man I’ve seen all night. His tiny dreads are pulled up top, his head clean-shaven on the sides. A lion, mane and all, is tattooed on his forearm. A Brit of Ghanaian descent. As soon as I sit down, he smiles, making him seem softer, completely open. But I am not alone. One woman sits on her knees talking to him from the floor, another is on the armrest of the couch, lightly touching his arm.
Joining them next to him, I turn on — changing my voice to a higher register to convey excitement — pulling the focus of the room onto me: “It’s my birthday in 15 minutes!”
In response, the drunk-and-high group responds genuinely: “Oh, happy birthday!”
“But I am so tired,” I continue, playing up the fatigue I genuinely feel to get what I want.
The man with the lion tattoo touches my arm, playfully summoning me closer, “Well we can help with that. Jay has some speed.”
I smile. I shout, “What’s your sign?”
“Aw, fuck. Are you kidding me?” I say without thinking. I stop myself from revealing that I fuckin’ hate Leos (because of an ex). They love attention more than I do, and that says a lot. My authentic reaction does not help my cause. But thankfully, he laughs.
“It’s why I’ve got this tattoo,” he says, as he pulls up his sleeve to show me the full lion.
“Makes sense.” I smile, knowing I’m about to get what I want.
When I lost my virginity at exactly 16, I held onto the secret the way I was supposed to have held onto my hymen — tightly and forever. My paranoia had not lessened over time. It only amplified: I was fully convinced that if anyone found out I had lost my virginity, I would single-handedly ruin my father’s public reputation.
Come high school, the vacancy in my childhood home grew unbearable. Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew kept Dad out of the house, season after season. My mother’s focus turned to his growing public career, when she wasn’t worrying about my figure skating career. They didn’t keep close tabs on me because I got good grades. I was an athlete; I went to the nutritionist and ate healthy. I was the lead in the musical. I was thin then, and pretty.
I maintained a work schedule comparable to my father’s. I was at the height of my own workaholism during my junior year of high school: I woke up to skate before school, and I had cheerleading practice after school. All of my figure skating competitors were homeschooled, but not me. No portions larger than a fist. My rigorous academic schedule kept me locked in my room every night, swallowing my meager dinner whole, in order to get my homework done in time to go to sleep and wake up early to skate again before school. Despite exercising four hours every day and studying for at least six hours every night, I couldn’t quite break a B+. I berated myself for it. How would I get into Columbia with those kinds of grades?
I kept myself “good” and “healthy” by shoving my fingers down my throat: Not much room to talk with a mouth full of fingers. I convinced myself that I wasn’t vomiting to silence my pain; that I wasn’t vomiting to keep myself thin enough to jump higher or look good; that I wasn’t vomiting to release the anger, stress and anxiety that was created by internal and external pressure. I convinced myself that I wasn’t vomiting at all.
Reflecting my father’s public career shift from the sex guy to the rehab guy, I became the ultimate teetotaler: no drugs, no booze, in addition to no carbs. Which didn’t make me fun at parties. I was invited to one or two, but witnessing my peers experiment with booze made me judgmental: I could never allow myself to surrender control. Dad had said on national television that he wouldn’t bail me out of jail. If I got busted, I was done for.
My high school sweetheart was a football player; I was a cheerleader. We played out an ’80s movie version of a high school fantasy, dressed in orange polyester but with a fun twist of codependency. Every day he bought me six cans of Diet Coke; he walked me to and from my classes; he brushed my retainer and my hair before he quite literally tucked me into bed at night. In a fleeting moment of clarity and honesty, we both confessed our self-harming tendencies to each other as a way to cement our love and trust. “If you don’t vomit, I won’t cut,” he whispered over the phone late one night. We exchanged the pain we each carried in our chests, the load lighter when it was not our own. I thought he was my cure.
After one whole year — an eternity — I was ready to give myself to him completely. Every day, I would wait for him to finish football practice. During Ramadan, he was not allowed to drink water, even during practice. We would meet up by the football field afterward, and he would chew on wads of spit as thick as cotton from a day of fasting. I became his substitute for food and water. And he became mine. Every day, I held his hand and thought about the smell of his skin. Every day, I inched closer to sex without realizing it. For both of us, it was taboo. He was not supposed to have sex because of his religion, and I couldn’t because of my fear of being treated like the girls who were called “slut” and “whore” behind their backs. And more than that, I was terrified of ruining my father’s career. We conquered my fear by scheming. We made a plan that, in the years to follow, I would convert to Islam and marry him. He saw no problem with our plan, nor did I. Converting to Islam and losing my virginity felt equal in weight. And at 16, I felt, I was ready to make those kinds of decisions. Delusion, a heady drug, goes hand in hand with being in love for the first time.
After the first Friday night football game of the season, I laid naked on the khaki-carpeted floor of the closet in my childhood bedroom, my fingernails leaving crescents in my palms. Completely naked, he knelt in front of me with only a condom on.
I held my breath.
He entered me.
No wetness, only plastic on dry skin.
The closet doors were wide open, blocking my bedroom door. If anyone opened that door while he was inside of me, we would have had a chance to stand up and conceal ourselves. But no one barged in.
I shut both of my eyes.
The sound of plastic ripping stopped us both in our tracks.
He pulled out.
I said nothing.
We got into his dad’s white Ford Explorer to go to Walgreens. He went in alone, just in case anyone recognized me. He was 17, so he had to ask a stranger to buy him a box of Plan B. He came back with a pill. I took it. My fear of gaining weight was trumped by something else, for once. Even though I hadn’t really had my period in years — due to my restrictive diet and rigorous training — even the remote possibility of teenage pregnancy was terrifying.
We started driving back to my house. “So,” he asked, “do you want to try again?”
After that night, we would go on to bang daily: Sex became a meal substitute and a workout. I searched “How many calories does an orgasm burn?” His body inside of mine filled me up. But when I found myself sexually sated, it exposed another hunger: Sometimes love wasn’t enough. After fucking in the back of my Lexus hybrid SUV, I would rip open the center console and eat a fistful of cookies from the economy-sized pack of Chips Ahoy I had bought for him because I liked to watch him eat food that I was not allowed. But sometimes watching him eat what I craved was not enough. Sometimes I had to eat for myself. As long as no one knew, I told myself it didn’t count.
I didn’t have the words for what I was doing quite yet, but I couldn’t help but think: It’s not a matter of not doing it — it’s a matter of not getting caught.
The man with the lion tattoo motions for his friend Jay to come over. Jay is slightly balding and his puffy nipples are visible through his black, well-worn T-shirt. The girl on the armrest jumps up and says that she wants some speed too. She immediately annoys the shit out of me. I berate myself for being a bad feminist by judging her so harshly. Is it because she’s my competition? No, I convince myself that I don’t feel any sense of competition with other women — I remind myself that I ditched that attitude freshman year of college during my first year of recovery. But of course, that is part of it. She is smaller than me — bird bones. When the feeling creeps up, I immediately stamp it out. Comparing my body to every body that passes me is a hell that I choose to no longer live. There’s room for us both, for us all. And so I conclude: Some people are just annoying. I can respect her humanity and still not like her — I won’t be rude. Jay and the girl know each other. He seems like he’s into her, she seems into the idea that he’s into her, and I am into the idea of taking speed.
We go downstairs to the bathroom that Cole pissed in earlier. It’s not a matter of not doing it — it’s a matter of not getting caught reverberates in my skull. Never in a million years did I think that I, Paulina Marie Pinsky, would be doing speed at a nightclub in Berlin on the eve of my 25th birthday.
We find a free bathroom stall. The three of us stand in front of the toilet. Jay starts to partition the white dust with a credit card. I watch. I’m Dr. Drew, and this is Celebrity Rehab — I slam my eyelids shut to turn off the noise in my head. I open my eyes, the girl looks at me. Neediness drips out of her pores. I admire her thick hair, her messy bangs and voluminous Brigitte Bardot ponytail. She is draped in various pieces of black fabric. She is tiny, made of brittle bird bones. High cheekbones and crooked teeth. Very German, very Berlin, very beautiful in a fragile way. She keeps looking at me.
“Can I kiss you?” she asks.
I shrug. “Sure.” I appreciate that she asked. Earlier in the evening, a woman with a face tattoo went in for a kiss (that I dodged) and a boob grab (that I unlatched with a little effort).
Our lips meet. I place my hand on her jaw, noticing how fragile and delicate it feels in my hand. I find my hands knotted in the ponytail. And then it’s done. My first time kissing a girl.
When I left Pasadena for college, I had a perpetual feeling of panic: that people would recognize my last name and expose that I was drinking underage or wearing short skirts while grinding on boys in a dark fraternity basement. They would snap a picture and sell it to TMZ. I would ruin everything that my father worked for. His reputation, his credibility gone because I couldn’t be “good.” A year earlier, the paparazzi had taken pictures of my family on the beach in Hawaii and blasted them across the internet. If I was fair game once, who was to say that I wouldn’t be again?
I quickly learned that no one cared. In fact, most people on the East Coast said, “Who?” And I said, “The TV doctor who is not Dr. Phil, but looks like Anderson Cooper. He has glasses and gray hair.” I always added, “Plus, Dr. Phil doesn’t even have an active medical license,” though nobody had asked.
Suddenly anonymous, I started to test out a new version of myself in New York City, far away from Los Angeles and the house I grew up in. I grabbed hunks of my hair and coated them in green dye. I pierced extra holes in my ears and nose, and I joined the rugby team. I started to drink, a lot, just because I could.
My blatant disregard for my true desires — to be loved, to feel whole, to feel worthy — of course coincided with the realization that I was bulimic. The numbness that the bulimia masked was fully blooming in my chest. I fucked to feel alive. I fucked to feel wanted. I fucked to feel worthy. Because isn’t that what we are taught that sex is supposed to do?
I desperately wanted to be interested in women — I imagined that it was just endless orgasms and laughter. Like every other student at an all-women’s liberal arts college, I understood that gender was a construct and sexuality existed on a spectrum. I had read Judith Butler. I had read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. And yet, I was just another typical straight girl wishing her way out of heterosexuality, gripping onto second-wave feminist theory. But the truth was, at the time, I just wasn’t into women. However, now I understand that it’s more about potential or possibility. Sometimes it’s a smell. And more times than not, it’s just a matter of losing yourself in the heat of the moment.
But I can’t say that I was experiencing anything that resembled passion during college. The sex I had did not make me feel alive, wanted or worthy. Highlights included: a basketball player with no sexual stamina; a 25-year-old Norwegian who thought I was “mature” (yeah, right) and hilarious; a boy who would claim we’d had sex even though we hadn’t; a classic closet case; plus a plethora of men who would, as I tended to describe the sex I had in college, trip and fall and land inside of me. There was the senior who kept a little black book. More than one hundred women had been cataloged in it, he told me. Was I worth cataloging? I peeked inside while he was in the shower, and there it was: “Dr. Drew’s Daughter.”
It was a surprise and yet no surprise at all.
My Brigitte Bardot pony and I sit in a suspended wooden loft, situated above one of the club’s many bars — a sea of people swim below us. She pulls away and leans into a boy who looks like he is no older than 17, while her hand hovers near my vagina. She whispers into my ear, “What about a threesome?”
I ask a stranger for a cigarette, even though I don’t usually smoke — ask for a light, take a drag. I tell myself it’s a bit I’m trying out. Finally, a full minute later, I respond to Bardot: “Sure.” She alludes to us fucking the teenager. I say absolutely not. At this point, I am ready for this woman. Honestly, when I’m 84, I want to be able to say I’ve experienced everything life has to offer, including making love to a woman — I mean, I am an intersectional feminist after all. She’s alluring, and into me, and I’m into her. But I don’t want her to know that I want to fuck her more than she wants to fuck me. So I say, “No, absolutely not. I am not fucking him.”
She asks him if he wants to have a threesome. His eyes light up. He turns to me and tries to go in for a kiss. I say, “No fucking way,” and leave the loft, making my way down the wooden stairs.
I know she will follow.
She comes down the stairs holding the hand of the teenager.
Again, I look her in the eye and say, “No. I’m not fucking him. He looks like he’s 14.”
He hears me and shouts, “Hey, I am not 14!”
I walk away. She follows.
“What about Lion Tattoo?” she suggests.
I stop. I remember the lion tattoo on his forearm. His smile.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Let’s find him.”
I grab her hand, and we find the room with the empty doorframe. Lion Tattoo is still where we left him, sitting on the tattered couch. I sit down next to him and tell him that Bardot wants to fuck both of us.
His smile is like sullied honey spilling from his lips: “Ah, would love to, but I’m leaving, love.”
I grab his arm and laugh in his face. “Are you serious? Two people want to fuck you at the same time, and you’re going to leave?”
I know I need to make my case because it’s either him, someone I have a genuine connection with, or a teenager. I get dangerously coercive. “Lion Tattoo. Seriously. Are you crazy?”
“Yes. I’m crazy.” He tries to get off the couch. I grab his thick forearm, my fingers on his pulse. His friends are standing in the empty doorframe, the very one that had led me to him at the beginning of the night.
“Right. Don’t be. Seriously, dude. You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life.”
He looks me in the eyes. I smile.
“You’re a fucking Leo! You love attention! How can you refuse?”
“Fine. I’ll stay.”
I wake up in the Airbnb with a migraine, the forearm with the lion tattoo draped across my chest. Brigitte Bardot is sound asleep next to us. I open my eyes; the light amplifies the pain so much that I can hear it. I lift his arm off of me and walk to other side of the bed to my wallet. I only find one sumatriptan tablet. I’m having a full migraine, but I don’t have the full remedy — I need 100 milligrams, not 50. I slip my fingernail under the aluminum, rip it back, and tear the paper. I swallow the pill dry.
On the table sits what we charmingly deem “the cigarette plate.” Cigarette butts and ash are playfully sprinkled on top of two used condoms. There’s an empty bottle of wine, two lighters, a small bottle of Jäger, and my glasses — no prescription, they’re purely to keep out UV and LED light to prevent migraines. I gag, thinking about the cigarettes I smoked — more in one night than in my whole lifetime. I think about a commercial I saw once in which a smoker climbs a mountain of cigarette ash until she reaches the top. When she finally “quits” smoking, she can see the sun and smell the crisp fresh air at the top of the hill. But after watching that commercial, I couldn’t stop thinking about how she still stood on top of that pile of ash, her lungs filled with stuff that looked like cremated human skin. For weeks, I was bombarded with visions of grabbing chunks of the gunk and eating it. I couldn’t shake it. And now, my lungs are full of chunky ash. If you sliced me open, you could probably pull out fistfuls of what used to be my bronchioles. I think about the fact that my maternal grandmother smoked a pack a day.
But I remember — it’s my birthday. It’s my birthday! Twenty-five and feelin’ barely alive. I sneak into the kitchen, where Cole is sleeping on a cot, and pour myself a glass of water. I’m too hyped for my birthday to feel like a bad friend for ditching him for group sex. I take a sip and remember the hours before: standing in front of the man with the lion tattoo, telling him to fuck her until she came. He didn’t break eye contact as I took a drag from my cigarette and blew smoke out of the corner of my mouth. He didn’t break eye contact when she came.
I climb back into bed. Lion Tattoo kisses me: “Happy birthday.”
Brigitte Bardot reaches across him to touch my face: “Happy birthday!”
Turns out, they are both Leos.
My man for the night turns onto his back: “Man, I feel like it’s my birthday. Here I am, lying in bed with two utterly sexy ladies — inside and out. It feels like it’s my birthday.”
“That’s all I want,” I say. As a triplet, I am used to sharing my birthday. “Can I show you this kimono I got in Amsterdam?”
They both sit up in the bed. I pull out a clay-red kimono with cream flowers trailing down the sleeves, which I bought in one of Amsterdam’s vintage thrift shops.
I air my concern to the group: “OK, so I was nervous about buying it because I didn’t want to appropriate Japanese culture. But, like, it’s imported from Japan. And everything I do is sort of problematic because I’m white, and I know that.”
Lion Tattoo laughs. Brigitte Bardot doesn’t get the joke, but smiles.
I put it on.
“Oh,” he gasps. “Honestly, it looks so good, you can do whatever you want.”
“Thank you, but don’t give me permission because I will exploit it.”
“Twirl for me, darling. In a kimono like that, you have to twirl.”
I twirl, feel light-headed, and grab a wall. “I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
I drop the kimono on the floor and walk to the bathroom, where I projectile vomit into the toilet. I rinse out my mouth and come back.
Lion Tattoo is on my bed wearing my kimono; Brigitte Bardot is showing him something on her phone. She sees me and asks, “Do you want to see a picture of my weasel?”
“Absolutely!” I say.
It is a tiny little thing, so tiny that it fits in the palm of her hand.
“He lives in my parents’ house in Bavaria.”
“He’s so tiny!” I yelp.
Brigitte Bardot asks if I have more beer. Early afternoon, she’s ready to go out again.
“Oh, I just threw up in the bathroom.”
She puts her hands on my shoulder: “Are you OK? My father gets migraines like that too. What can we do?”
I lay down on the bed. They each take a side. Lion Tattoo kisses my cheek. “You have two Leos by your side,” he says. “We’ll do anything for you.” I love being the center of attention. This proposition, almost surreal — erotic.
“I … I think I need weed.”
“My ex always has weed,” says Brigitte Bardot. “Do you think he’ll answer?”
“I mean … are you on good terms — ”
She is already out of the room on the call. I am grateful that she is gone.
I put my glasses on and snuggle into Lion Tattoo’s arms. He plays me a song from his SoundCloud because he’s told me he raps and I’ve demanded proof. Thankfully, it is sort of good. Good enough that I don’t have to lie about it. I thank him for not putting me in the position of having to lie to him. I tell him it’s always a drag to have to look someone in the eye after listening to their bad music. I tell him about what I’ve been writing. I tell him about my cat. I tell him about my family, my Dad — why? Because how do I explain myself without him?
I hover over the toilet and my phone falls to the ground.
I retch. Look down and see “Daddy” — I had thumb-dialed him during my effort to run to the toilet and barf my brains out, again. “Da — ” gets garbled out with the flow of stomach acid — I haven’t eaten anything in over 24 hours. “Paulina. Are you OK? What is going on?”
I pick up the phone. Sit on the toilet. Catch my breath.
“Hi, Dad. I’m so sorry — ”
“Are you OK? What’s going on?”
I start to shit.
“I’m vomiting and shitting my brains out. I have a migraine.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Happy birthday to me.”
He laughs: “Nice, party time.”
My two Leos had left an hour earlier — the sun had set and Brigitte Bardot wanted to go back to the club, even though her skin was so dry that it was peeling off her face, and she also hadn’t eaten anything in over 24 hours. Lion Tattoo was willing to rally. I felt like I was barely alive. But so grateful, despite feeling every extreme that my body could possibly feel. On my 25th birthday, I was able to feel ecstasy, love, pain, disgust, fear and, now, gratitude.
“How’s Berlin?” Dad asks.
“I’m just … even though I have a migraine and I’m shitting my brains out, I’m so grateful to be alive.”
Stoned and having a migraine while talking to my father on the phone is, in theory, a nightmare. But in reality, it felt right. Of course I would accidentally dial my dad after having a threesome on speed! The human psyche is twisted.
“Ha! I’m glad. Well, I just wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday and to tell you I love you — ”
“Oh! You called me? I thought I thumb-dialed you.”
“No, I called you.”
“Must have accepted your call mid-yack.”
“From the sound of it, yes. That’s true.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“Love you, too.”
I hang up, then retch one more time.
There is an invisible chasm between who I am and who I used to be. My 16-year-old self would shudder at the sight: Drugs, alcohol and sex? How dare I partake in all three? At the same time! What is wrong with you — I mean, me? But I would butter her up by saying, “Listen, you end up going to Columbia. Twice!” She’d gasp and grin, just as I sneak in: “You also have a weed guy.” Cue: anxiety attack.
Back in New York, I climb into bed with a joint at the end of a long day of writing. When I come to the page, I start to understand myself a little better.
No matter how flagrantly I demonstrate the ability to write about sex (and now, drugs), it’s different than talking to my parents about it. I still can’t find the words. There have been fleeting moments of clarity, in which I share some part of myself: a breakup, a rebound, a boyfriend. But still, talking to my parents about anything related to sex makes me cringe — the third-grader in my head holds a megaphone and bellows: You’re a very bad girl! But I know that I haven’t been bad, just sexual. And as a full-grown woman, I will proudly continue to have sex with whomever I damn well please. However, despite feeling confident enough to write about it, off of the page I only slide into comfort momentarily, when I’m a little tipsy with Mom. But when it comes to Dad, I still can’t help but think: It’s not a matter of not doing it — it’s a matter of not getting caught.