The rectory of a Roman Catholic church in lower Manhattan
“Have you had sexual relations with him?” asked the young priest.
I looked away and squirmed. There was a large mahogany desk between us, making it feel more like I was at the principal’s office rather than getting spiritual insight into the troubled relationship with my boyfriend.
“Well, it just happened for the first time last week,” I admitted.
Now it was Father Michael who cast his gaze on nothing in particular. His office felt large, as if it could swallow me up. I noticed the small, bushy ponytail at the nape of his neck as I awaited his response, which seemed to take forever.
“You can be a virgin again,” he cheerfully announced. “After confession.”
The priest then leaned back in his large swivel chair, which looked like it belonged in a judge’s chamber. He folded his hands under his chin, and said gravely, yet wistfully:
“But you’ve already tasted blood.”
That may sound made up, but it’s not. I have a thing for words, and a scarily good memory, perhaps owing to the fact that I’m slightly obsessive (OK, maybe more than “slightly”), and so I tend to replay conversations in my mind. Often. Besides, who can forget a line like that?
“You’ve already tasted blood.”
I was 23 years old. The Boyfriend was all I knew—my first kiss, my first everything. I know, I came late to the game.
I’d met him a year before when I moved from Miami to get a master’s degree in journalism at New York University. He was a software engineer from Los Angeles working at a tech startup in New Jersey. He had long blond hair, earrings, a tattoo, and he was a vegetarian—with little magnets on his fridge that read “No Pigs in Here” and "Cows Are Friends, Not Food.”
There was no blood, anywhere.
He was the complete opposite of what anyone back home—including myself—thought I’d end up with. I’d grown up in a conservative Cuban family, surrounded by clean-cut guys who ate slabs of roasted pork and whole-milk rice pudding.
We were new territory to each other, in more ways than one. He introduced me to hummus and Trader Joe’s; I taught him the difference between dancing salsa and merengue. Meanwhile, I’d explore the foreign contours of his body as if I were a scientist in a lab—sometimes giggling, always in wide-eyed wonder—while he waited patiently for me to get more and more comfortable with each breathless incremental increase in physical intimacy.
Seven years my senior, he found my innocence becoming. I’d let him inside my tiny graduate-student apartment only during the day. For whatever reason, I was worried I’d lose control at night. I was also concerned that my roommate would walk in on us. For our first few dates, we would only kiss—and kiss—on the street. Weeks later, when I finally let him in after the sun went down, I always kicked him out whenever things went too far for my comfort. He never protested.
“Want me to call you when I get home?”
“Nah, that’s OK,” I’d say, shooing him out the door.
Oh, to be that young and confident again.
Later, I found out he would sleep in his Ford Bronco so he didn’t have to make the long drive home at 2 a.m.
This was love.
“I don’t want my life to be a succession of men in my bed!” I wailed the first night I pondered letting him stay over.
He was lying on the twin mattress, the wall next to him scuffed by the leather bomber jacket and black jeans I made sure he kept on during our latest make-out session. Without missing a beat, he said:
“Then let your life be a succession of me in your bed.”
With that kind of spontaneous poetry, how could I not let him stay? Suddenly, I went from wondering what was wrong with me because I’d never had a boyfriend to being with a guy who wanted to marry me. But we fought—a lot.
One night we were in a taxi heading to a Blur concert, and he was sulking because I had eaten a hamburger. When I asked him why he wouldn’t let me make my own food choices, he thought about it and finally said, “Because it could affect those who come from you.” He was referring to our future children. Even though I was angry, I had to laugh.
Those were the easy arguments. Others—about anything and everything—lasted well into the night before one of us realized we should just take off our clothes, because that was going to happen anyway.
“We may as well make up now” became a common refrain.
It was intense, exhilarating, and exhausting. I vacillated between wanting to run away and fearing I couldn’t live without ever seeing The Boyfriend again. Meanwhile, his utter certainty that I was the woman for him both enthralled me and freaked me out. I wanted a man’s undying devotion, but did it have to be the first guy I ever kissed?
He kept wanting to push our commitment forward, while I held back. So we would argue some more. Then he’d get mean, I’d start blaming, and we’d inevitably argue about how we were arguing. I lost track of how many times we’d break up only to get back together the next day.
And now here I was, sitting opposite a priest with a ponytail, who didn’t seem to care about the fact that I was falling apart and spending way too many hours arguing in traffic on the George Washington Bridge when I should have been savoring my new life in the city.
In my 40s I can see this so clearly, and at 23 I knew it somewhere in my being, too. But I didn’t trust myself, and I thought someone else would know more about what was better for me than I did. That’s why I was sitting in front of Father Michael, hoping he would give me some kind of permission slip—a get-out-of-jail card I really could only give myself.
Instead, the priest was fixated on my recent “transgression.”
“What about all the fighting?” I asked.
“That doesn’t concern me as much; all marriages have trouble.”
I didn’t bother to correct the obvious—that I was young, that we weren’t even engaged, and that perhaps we shouldn’t even be together. But I was good at following orders—and ignoring my gut. So I dutifully went into the confession booth and made a vow to abstain. Then The Boyfriend visited the following weekend. Naturally, we ended up naked.
At brunch in the West Village the next day, I was distraught. I looked down at my eggs Florentine and cried, “I can’t believe we did it again—I promised I wouldn’t!”
“That’s it, Babe, we’re not doing it anymore,” he said, slamming down his fork.
“Really?” I pouted.
We both laughed. But the mixture of desire and guilt consumed me.
Blame it on my Catholic education, although that didn’t stop some of the other 10th-grade girls at La Salle High School from sneaking behind the bleachers with their boyfriends after pep rallies. Or the suggestive statues sprinkled throughout Florence—the Italian city that inspires gluttony and lust in equal measure while boasting an enormous concentration of churches.
I’d spent a month there studying Renaissance art right before The Boyfriend and I finally did the deed. It was the first time I understood that pleasures of the flesh and palate were deeply intertwined, and that food would become my sensual delight of choice when love wasn’t around. I ate three gelatos a day while writing impassioned poetry to my man back home.
My preoccupation with romantic—and rather tragic—love started at an early age. Growing up in a Cuban family meant getting most of my love lessons from over-the-top Spanish-language soap operas—where lovers, consumed by fiery passion for each other, would let the rest of their lives melt into oblivion. As a child, I listened intently as my mother claimed she was instantly smitten with her first boyfriend, and noted the glint in my grandfather’s eye when he recalled my grandmother flirting with him on a bus in 1940s Havana. They got off at the next stop and checked into a hotel. Scandalous. When she was seven months pregnant, they married. My grandparents spent four tumultuous years together before separating, during which time two more children—including my mother—were born. Then they obsessed about each other for the rest of their lives, even though they lived apart.
To me, the lesson was clear: Cupid’s arrow was swift, sharp, and searing—leaving an indelible mark. At the same time, the nuns at St. Patrick School warned us about harboring lustful thoughts, which they said was just as sinful as carrying out the act. No wonder I was both terrified and captivated by The Thorn Birds, the epic tale of star-crossed love between a handsome priest and a much younger woman in the Australian outback. The popular television miniseries came out when I was only 8 years old, and I was riveted.
My father was a Russian Jew who was raised in Cuba, where he met my mother. They divorced when I was a baby, so my mother’s Catholicism won out early on—much to the curiosity of my Jewish friends. One afternoon during summer camp in Miami Beach, I decided to teach them about the Immaculate Conception and the virgin birth of Jesus. Gathered in a circle with a rapt audience, it was my first experience as a storyteller. Too young to question what I had learned in school, I explained that Mary was born free from original sin and in turn had become pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“That’s the girl who told us about the Virgin Mary!” said one of my camp mates, pointing at me when her mother came to pick her up. The mother, gracefully, said nothing.
By the time I got to high school, I was going to Mass every day before class and had impressed the priests so much that they suggested I join the sisterhood.
“But I want to have kids,” I told them.
And they could say nothing.
IMMACULATELY POACHED EGGS FLORENTINE
Makes one serving (multiply as you wish …)
It took me forever to learn how to poach an egg. Poached eggs just seemed so advanced and risky to me—like losing one’s virginity. But once you try making them, there’s really not much to learn. And then you can have poached eggs all the time. Well, when you have a good egg.
For the Hollandaise:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch sea salt
½ stick (57 g) butter, melted
For the rest:
Handful of baby spinach
1 teaspoon butter
English muffin, split
First, make the Hollandaise:
1.Fill a small saucepan with ½ inch of water. Bring the water to simmer.
2.Place a stainless steel or glass bowl over the saucepan, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water.
3.Put egg yolks, lemon juice, cayenne, and salt into the bowl, then whisk together.
4.Add the melted butter in small increments, whisking well after each addition.
5.Continue whisking until thickened, then take off the heat and keep covered until ready to use.
For each egg (you can have two saucepans going at the same time):
1.Put a little white vinegar (about a tablespoon or two) into a small saucepan, then fill the pan with enough hot water to cover an egg (about two inches). Place over high heat.
2.Carefully crack the egg into a small ramekin.
3.When the water in the pan starts to boil, put a whisk into the water and rapidly whip it until you’ve created a whirlpool. Carefully tip the egg into the center of the whirlpool.
4.Lower the heat to barely simmering, and set the timer to four minutes. (I usually let it go about 15 seconds longer, because I like my egg yolk on the firmer side. Here, as with many things, personal preference will dictate how long you keep the egg in the pan.)
5.Use a slotted spoon to scoop up the egg, then gently shake off the excess water. You can also place the cooked eggs on a paper towel to soak up extra moisture.
Put it all together:
1.While the eggs are cooking, toast the English muffin halves. Melt the teaspoon of butter in a skillet, add the spinach, and cook—while stirring—until wilted.
2.Pile each muffin half with spinach, top with an egg, and spoon the Hollandaise on top.