I was rushing around TK Maxx in Stephen’s Green trying to find a hat that was Bohemian, yet dressy enough to wear on my first official “date” with Mark. We’d spoken every day since we’d finally kissed. It felt like we knew and understood each other completely and for the first time in my life, logic lost. Logically, I always somehow knew the chances of Mark, or me, settling enough for us to build a lasting relationship were slim. I knew he was much older than me and that at some stage, that would have to matter even if we could pretend it wouldn’t for now. But I didn’t care. I was in love, or I thought I was, for the very first time, and I had that desperate defensiveness of someone who has found love and doesn’t want to ever contemplate the possibility that she will, someday, have to let it go.
I found a black hat with a silver band across the brow and pinned my hair up under it out of necessity. I had bought a beautiful dress almost two years ago and had been saving it ever since. I felt amazing in that dress, with a black bodice type top and a white circle skirt that came to just above my knees, but I’d never had anything to wear it to. I found a youtube tutorial on smoky eyes and when I was finished I barely recognised the woman in the mirror. She looked vampy, sexy and scared. I tried a smile. It looked uncertain, but excited. I caught the LUAS into town and as it glided through the night, from Ranelagh’s trust-fund and solicitor respectability over the canal, through the drunken underage mess of Harcourt Street’s dive bars and clubs to come to rest outside the leafy park of St Stephen’s Green, I couldn’t help but glance at my reflection in the window opposite me. I’d never been a vain person. But I looked and felt so different in that dress and hat that for the first time, I couldn’t keep my eyes off myself. A group of guys got on in Charlemount. Good looking, well-dressed guys about my age or slightly older, and I caught the glances they sent my way, sending tiny ripples of excitement through me. I’d never been looked at before, or else I had but had always assumed they must be looking at someone else. I’d sat on the late-night LUAS plenty of times and had seen beautiful, confident women get on and I’d envied the looks they got. I never thought I could be one of those women.
The dress zipped up the back. It was a bit tricky to get into. I wondered if Mark would help me get out of it later.
When I was at UCD, I genuinely believed that every single one of my fellow students was at it non-stop, their entire college careers one extended orgasm, while I was the only one who was mostly celibate. The truth was that there wasn’t that much free sex floating around really, and college sex just wasn’t very good. I did mature sexually in college, but that had far more to do with my own imagination than it did with the clumsy, lager-saturated gropes of other students who were equally inexperienced as me, and equally as desperate to hide that inexperience. Other students talked about sex as a goal in itself, something that caused the earth to move every time and was pleasure on tap, but after a few frustrating and excruciatingly awkward encounters, I wasn’t so sure it was that good really. My fantasies grew though, and were even better than the real thing. I imagined experiences I knew I would never have in real life, and whenever I was stressed, or lonely, or just plain couldn’t get to sleep, I would lie in my single bed, being as quiet as I possibly could, and experiment with my fingers until I knew which strings to stroke and which buttons to press to bring me to the point where I had had enough and felt content. I never came that way – when I met Mark I had never had an orgasm, even though I faked it a few times to spare feelings and/or because I was bored and wanted to go to sleep – but I did get to a point where I was quietly satisfied. I always wondered though, if my problem with sex was as simple as my being too young to have had a lover experienced and knowledgable enough to bring me the kind of blinding, shrieking orgasm that I read about in Scarlet for the few months Easons on O’Connell Street stocked it (hidden behind the crochet magazines on the bottom shelf). Mark could be that lover, I thought. I knew he was older and wished he was younger, as it should be less complicated that way, but maybe there would be carnal advantages to dating an older man.
The walk to the restaurant was beautiful. Mark was beautiful too, although I wondered if he knew he was leading me through Dublin’s badlands. While it was wonderful to be alone with him, I wouldn’t have minded some slightly tougher-looking company on that walk. We walked by the river until we came to an old-world yacht, the ebony hull and white deck looming over us. A slim white staircase sloped down to meet us over the white railings that separated the frozen docklands from the cold estuary. We stepped up onto the vessel and out of reality. Sitting there, facing each other across a candlelit mahogany table in the cabin, feeling ourselves gently rocking up and down on the Liffey and watching the lights of the IFSC glitter and dance on the surface of the white snow and black river outside, it felt like we were living in a fairy tale. I knew I was drinking far too much wine but the feeling of tipsiness added to my excitement for what was to come. Mark’s hand was tracing up the inside of my leg under the table. I slipped my foot out of my shoe and ran it up his calf. We didn’t stay for dessert.
Passing a group of terrifying youths wreaking enraged havoc on a BMW parked on Sherriff Street as we were leaving soon brought us back to reality and our gentle romantic stroll back to his acquired a less relaxed and romantic pace.
His flat was luxurious, but sterile. There were no posters, no pictures, not even many belongings. Mark himself had such soul but his place felt soulless. The door clicked shut behind us and then there was that horrible moment where you both know what you both want to come next but neither of you feels sure enough to make the first move. You don’t look at each other, or say anything, until eventually one of you can’t bear the awkwardness anymore and you kiss, lips meeting tentatively while your blood thumps violently around your bodies. We kissed for a long time, both of us enjoying the freedom to kiss long and in private, and getting used to the intimacy of combining both our personal spaces into one. I don’t remember if I reached for the top buttons of his shirt first or if he slid the jacket from my shoulders first, but it happened, gradually, while we were still kissing, and then we were on his bed, then in his bed, half dressed, then less dressed (but with my hat still on – at least until the lights were off as planned). I knew what Chrissie Hynes meant when she sang of the night in her veins, under her skin, as Mark’s hands and lips almost frantically travelled my shoulders, neck and back. I stretched out on top of him, gently shaking with anticipation, my mouth hungrily exploring his. But it wasn’t long before I noticed a potential problem. It was probably fine, though, I thought. I’d never been with anyone more than a year or two older than me before. Maybe, I reasoned to myself, a little desperately it’s true, this was how it was for older men. Maybe they – it – just took slightly longer to wake up.
Mark did seem excited. His hands were pulling me closer and I could taste the desire in his mouth and see it in how his eyes dilated when he looked at me. All the signs were there, apart from one. The important one. I closed my eyes and kept kissing him, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. It’s not exactly an easy subject to broach under any circumstances, but especially not when you’re naked on top of him. I had such little experience then. I knew men had problems as they got older, but was Mark really that old? I opened my eyes and looked hard at him. Now that I was this close to him, I could see a slackness around his jaw and crinkled lines around and under his eyes I hadn’t noticed before. His skin was still flawless but there was a pallor to it that wasn’t entirely healthy. I hoped it would come to life down there, and soon, before things got really awkward.
I’d never taken the lead in any kind of bedroom activity before. With women, the lines were blurred but I had never fucked a man before even though I had allowed myself to be fucked and enjoyed it plenty of times. Mark’s penis was still, shall we say, relaxing, and I realised I’d have to somehow confront the situation. The lack of situation. I started to pull away from him, as I wracked my brain for a way to say “It’s fine that you can’t get it up, really” that didn’t sound resentful, disappointed or just plain patronising. Mark’s reaction was to pull me closer and kiss me even deeper. Ok, now I was really confused. I decided the only option was to pretend it wasn’t happening for a while longer. Or rather, I pretended that it was. All the while my body was going through the motions but my brain was going into overdrive. Mark must not find me sexually attractive at all, I thought, with a pang of hurt and disappointment so sharp I almost thought I’d cry. I knew he liked me as a person which was probably why he was still trying so hard.
Once that thought took root I just couldn’t do it anymore. I rolled off him to stare at the ceiling in silence. Mark buried his head in my neck. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” he muttered. After an unbearably uncomfortable silence he added “It really isn’t you.” I wished he hadn’t vocalised that. We lay there for what felt like a very long time. Then I put my dress back on, no longer feeling in any way glamourous or desirable, but more like an object of pity, and went out to wander the cold in search of a taxi home.