Speaking of sex, that aspect of our relationship was ... interesting. John was a virgin, for all intents and purposes, and had a longstanding aversion to masturbation (yes, really). Hence, he knew very little about, well, anything when it came to pleasure -- his own or other people's. This made things a bit tricky (to say the least), but I also found his bedroom inexperience weirdly exciting. I liked the idea of being his first, and of helping guide him through the dark and delightful world of naughty exploration.
My memories of that first summer are vivid but spotty snapshots. I remember making fun of the way he organized his CDs -- they were all displayed face-out on his shelf, like he was showing them off. I remember the heavy, ornate bright-red door of his apartment building on St. Mark's. I remember the swelter and humidity, drops of sweat rolling down my chest, down my stomach, as we walked the streets hand in hand. I remember spending the night at his dark, cramped railroad apartment, how my hair would tangle up into crazy bed-headed knots overnight, and how in the morning I'd sit in front of him on the bed while he brushed the tangles from my hair, so gently I could have cried. I remember holding each other in bed one night when his face broke out in a sudden swath of giddy happiness, and he squeezed me and murmured, "you're mine." It felt innocent and perfect, like words I'd been waiting to hear all my life.
I didn't need my pocket Madonna then; she wasn't even the spark of a flashpoint in the new-couple bubble we inhabited. Instead, we were full to bursting with inside jokes and stupid pet names. At the end of the summer, I returned to college in Massachusetts. He stayed in New York, where he was raised, and we continued our relationship long-distance.
But things changed, as they tend to do. The fighting started. It would usually happen when we drank together (which happened frequently during our monthly visits -- we were in college, remember?). Like I mentioned, I'd watched one too many arty foreign films, and I thought real love meant constant turmoil. So I picked fights. About everything. I was young and dramatic, craving -- no, demanding -- more reassurance than one person could ever be reasonably expected to give me. But in those fights, I learned some things. Things about John, things about me, things that weren't that pretty.
I began to glean that beneath his goofy Morrissey-loving shell there was a darker John -- insensitive, intolerant, possibly even bigoted. I learned this when he began to mock the riot grrrl music I loved as "bratty chatter." When he said that every nail-salon owner was an aging Korean woman who couldn't speak English. (Yes, we once fought about nail salons.) When he described, during our eventual breakup phone-call, "not knowing how to tell his girlfriend" -- um, me -- "that her butt was getting big." (Those times he read my diary, went through my computer files, and hid my makeup from me didn't help, either.)
But oddly, I learned about our differences most glaringly from John's outright, unabashed loathing for Madonna. We probably fought about her more than anything else -- more than about our own relationship, even. I'm not sure why, but there was something about the venom he reserved for her, his cruelty in dissecting what he perceived as her "slut factor." In saying she set feminism back hundreds of years (which he enjoyed saying often), he was dismissing everything I loved and admired most about her: not just her sexual agency, but her ballsiness, her self-possession, her boundary-pushing, and her never, ever giving a crap what anyone thought of her. She was the golden rebel-girl icon of my childhood, a shining example of everything I wasn't (yet), but wanted to be. Seeing her do all the things she did (strike a pose, lash a whip, wear corsets and collars and bustiers -- oh my! -- change her hair color, publish books, have babies, find God) showed me that if I wanted to, I could do those things. Watching her live without shame allowed me to believe that I, too, could live without shame.
John's rejection of Madonna felt much deeper than just some petty distaste for a pop star. OK, I might have been a smidge biased -- she had been my idol. But his perspective on Madonna felt like nothing short of derision -- for her, for me, for women as a whole. His inability to accept Madge for all the complicated intricacies of who she was indicated that when it came down to it, he couldn't accept me, either (hello, big-butt comment). And it did us in, just shy of a year together.
Now it's been thirteen years, and I can't lie -- I still feel a twinge when I think of him. It's probably just rose-tinted memories of our early days, getting sweetened by time; that impossible nostalgia many of us inadvertently hold onto for the intensity of our first loves (which may have been all wrong, but felt so Big, so Irreplaceable). I don't think John and I should have ended up together, and I don't envy the woman he's married to now. In fact, it was just last year that I realized the full extent of his issues (I found, buried in my Gmail archives, a paper he'd written that asserted his strident belief that the Holocaust never happened). But the early days of our relationship were some of the happiest times of my life. For an anti-Semitic Madonna-hater, he sure had a hold on me.
I'm still single. And I still want a romantic relationship (I am human), while finally understanding, deep down, that it won't fix me or my struggles with depression and self-doubt. Now in my mid-thirties, I realize more than ever that I owe it to myself to practice patience. I owe it to myself to wait for someone who accepts me wholeheartedly no matter how I look; someone who looks at women's self-expression as just that -- not as "bratty chatter." And if I feel lonely during the wait, I can dig out the old Madonna in my pocket -- my childhood hero, my shining beacon. She may be a bit rumpled, a bit worn, but she still grins defiantly and reminds me "absolutely no regrets."
Were you a HUGE Madonna fan growing up? Perhaps even have a photo of yourself dressed as your idol? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, along with your first name, age, age in the photo and a caption, and we'll include it in our slideshow below!
Laura Barcella is the San Francisco-based editor of the new anthology "Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop" (Soft Skull Press, March 2012). She's also the author of "The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions from Pop Culture That You Should Know About...Before It's Too Late" (coming in July 2012 from Zest Books). Her freelance writing has appeared in more than 40 magazines, newspapers, and websites, including the Village Voice, the Chicago Sun-Times, Salon.com, Time Out New York, ELLEGirl, BUST and NYLON.
Follow Laura Barcella on Twitter: www.twitter.com/laurabarcella