Maybe I was a unicorn or maybe I was a victim. All I know is that my closest male relative was obsessed with virginity, in particular, mine. If he couldn’t have it (if he hadn’t already when I was a tiny defenceless child), then no one else could have my virginity either but he was too clever to admit it.
Instead, he masked his incestuous tendencies in a guise of religion and morality. Terrified by his tales of STIs, unplanned pregnancies, single motherhood, poverty and being ‘damaged goods’, I held to my virginity, mostly out of fear of all the dangers he blathered on about and terror of displeasing him.
While the rest of my friends were having hot boozy sex of a Saturday night, I was home watching telly. ‘At least when I do find the right bloke’, I thought, ‘he won’t have the pain of imagining me in flagrante delicto with another man’. My supposed virginity, I’d been told, was a precious gift I would give to my future husband. A gift he would cherish. Certainly, I was told, you don’t want to ‘cheat’ on him before meeting him.
That came back to bite me on the arse when I met Rhys. Not only did he not share my ‘moral code’, he didn’t even know celibacy existed outside of a convent. Virginity wasn’t a Thing to him. Having lost his virginity to a female rapist by incest when he was just four years old, my virginity puzzled him.
While some men have a virgin fetish and keep a careful tally of how many women they’ve deflowered, Rhys isn’t like that. He hated the process. Hated causing me pain. The ‘gift’ of my virginity that I gave him fell flat. We never speak of it. If he treasures it, he hasn’t told me.
I didn’t have a ‘Past’ but he did. Suddenly, the shoe was on the other foot. I imagined a younger, healthier, virile Rhys putting all the same moves he puts on me, on his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends. Through some weird twist of fate, I’m acquainted with all of them. So it’s easy for me to imagine him in the throes of passion, caressing, kissing, thrusting, orgasming with these women. One of Rhys’ former lovers even married Rhys’ son.
Sometimes the emotional pain of my retroactive jealousy is so agonising, it becomes physical pain. God knows I don’t want to feel this way, but I can’t help it. It’s a natural and spontaneous emotion making life a bloody misery. The virgin’s bane.
It’s also a pain I can’t discuss with anyone, certainly not my family as I was warned, oh yes, I was warned. So there will be no empathy and I’m not stupid enough to give them the ammunition to say ‘I told you so’.
I might’ve been better prepared for retroactive jealousy if I’d seen the act of sexual intercourse on pornography but I never did. I may’ve been the only Welsh twenty-something whose sex ed was limited to ‘Part A goes in Part B’. What Part A did after it was in Part B was never mentioned so I approached sexuality not even knowing that motion was involved in the act of sex. That first time with Rhys was a hell of an education. A shock.
Yes, I am a unicorn.
It was only after I became intimate with Rhys that I realised just how intimate sex is. That’s when the jealousy hit with such a vengeance, I was physically ill.
Rhys knows I suffer from retroactive jealousy, although I try to ignore it, distract myself, express it calmly when it strikes. ‘I wish I’d only slept with you, Ivy’ he says. He’s not fantasizing about his exes. Not longing for them. Well, he did loudly mourn for his twenty-year-old virility while making love to me until I told him to shut up about it. He didn’t get it; I had to explain it. ‘You were with your ex. I don’t want to think about your ex!’
Far from being the ‘horny bastard’ we women have been told that all men are, Rhys is a wounded soul. Easy prey for aggressive users, abusers and rinsers. An easy mark for any woman with an agenda. ‘Wham-bam-thank-you-Rhys’. He came away from most sexual encounters feeling raped, sometimes physically, definitely emotionally and financially.
The only way I can survive this horrible jealousy is to block it out and black it out. Take a leaf from Rhys’ book and put his past in a hermetically sealed mental box as he has. But the jealousy rears its ugly head on the rare occasions when Rhys’ box opens and an ex pops out. A woman he’s had sex with and forgotten to tell me about when we had The Past Lovers Talk. Then the process repeats itself while I wonder, ‘How many other women has Rhys had and forgotten about’. He swears there’s no one else. But the trust has been slightly fractured.
Maybe he had the physical act of sex with those other women, but he has love and intimacy with me. When we have sex, it means something. It’s not sex for sex’s sake. Not mere lust. Not sex as he had sex with his ex-wife, so she could conceive living paycheques.
Our physical intimacy is merely the tangible expression of intangible eternal unconditional love. That’s something he never had with anyone else but me. He’s the yin to my yang, the sugar in my tea, the heart of my hearts.
If I had it to do all over again, would I do something, anything, differently? Perhaps dispense with my virginity earlier in life? Have a few sexual experiences before I met Rhys so things were even Steven?
No. I wouldn’t. It’s tempting. It would even the score. But no, I wouldn’t.
But I would do one thing differently. I’d watch porn so at least I’d know what was involved in the sexual act. So my retroactive jealousy could flame earlier and be dealt with before we made love for the first time. It might’ve made marriage easier.
If I could turn back time, I’d wave my magic wand and change Rhys’ past. I’d give him a good childhood in a healthy family. Eliminate rape, incest and Parental Alienation. Instead of five step-children by his ex-wife, I wouldn’t be inexplicably infertile and would bear him five children myself and raise them together. No court, no child support, no Parental Alienation. Had I a magic wand, I’d fix everything that’s pained Rhys and given him a happy life, past, present and future.
But then, he wouldn’t be Rhys. He wouldn’t be quite as sweet, quite as grateful, quite as loving.
Maybe things have worked out exactly as they were supposed to. If it weren’t for all the pain we’ve suffered, Full Heart Empty Arms wouldn’t exist.
Photo by George Eastman Museum