Emma Rathbone shares an extract from her novel, Losing it.
Julia Greenfield has a problem: she’s twenty-six years old and she’s still a virgin. Sex ought to be easy. People have it all the time! But, without meaning to, she made it through college and into adulthood with her virginity intact. Something’s got to change.
To re-route herself from her stalled life, Julia travels to spend the summer with her mysterious aunt Vivienne in North Carolina. It’s not long, however, before she unearths a confounding secret — her 58-year-old aunt is a virgin too. In the unrelenting heat of the southern summer, Julia becomes fixated on puzzling out what could have lead to Viv’s appalling condition, all while trying to avoid the same fate.
Losing It is about the primal fear that you just. might. never. meet. anyone. It’s about desiring something with the kind of obsessive fervor that almost guarantees you won’t get it. It’s about the blurry lines between sex and love, and trying to figure out which one you’re going for. And it’s about the decisions — and non-decisions — we make that can end up shaping a life.
I wondered in an instant how it was going to be. Was it going to hurt? Would I bleed? Was it going to feel like I would imagine, or be completely different? What was my responsibility physically? How was I supposed to move my body? Were we going to look at each other the whole time, or would our eyes be closed? Were we going to be kissing the whole time, or would he just be surging on top of me? Or should I be on top? What if I gave myself away and he could tell I was a virgin and then wanted to stop? Luckily, something about the way we were together was inspiring enough authority in me that I wasn’t actually too afraid of this.
It was all going so fast and it seemed like such a rare window that this would actually happen. He was doing something with his legs, spreading them, with his other hand he was unzipping his pants and then Karen was in the doorway. In a purple dress. Her head was tilted up and her mouth was open.
I went stiff. I said, “Oh.” Jack looked over his shoulder and said, “Shit.” Karen averted her eyes and said with a forced lightness, “Your aunt is looking for you.” And then there was a deafening pause as we all just stood there. A second went by. A general scramble started. Jack crouched over and zipped up his pants. Karen slammed the door. I yanked my dress down and pulled up my shoulder strap and combed my hands through my hair.
“Sorry,” he said under his breath. We continued to straighten ourselves out, to recalibrate. I looked around. The air had gone out and now we were just two unkempt strangers in a room. “No, no,” I said.
It’s funny how the atmosphere between two people can change so quickly, how ground gets covered that can never be re-traversed. I tried to think of something to say, but the climate had changed. He looked worn out and sad.
What happened next is that we slowly walked out of the room together, in a daze, and down the stairs. We were lightly holding hands, but I couldn’t tell if we were holding hands, or if it was a leftover remnant of what was happening before. At the foot of the stairs I squeezed his, and he gave me an unsure smile. Then someone called to him, and the doorbell rang, and a woman with red wine spilled on her blouse hurried by, and that was enough to sort of wind us away from each other.
I wandered through the house, trying to find Aunt Viv, who ended up being in the kitchen, and it wasn’t long before I was about to leave, closing the car door, scanning the yard for Jack, and we were down the driveway and heading home.
Viv and I didn’t say anything to each other on the drive back. I didn’t know how much she knew, or if she knew everything; if she was angry at me, or if she was just exhausted and sad. I put my hand out the window and let it glide through the wind. I glided back and forth through my memory of the day as I lay in bed that night. Or it was like I was lying in a boat on a lapping shore, the gentleness and warmth of the world pouring into me.
Emma Rathbone is the author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters and Losing It. She is the recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Grant in Fiction, and her work can also be seen in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. She is also a writer for the upcoming Netflix comedy, G.L.O.W. She lives in Los Angeles.