This essay went out through my newsletter on 3/22/2019.
The first time I remember this thing I'm about to describe happening I was in the car on the way back from a rafting trip with my youth group, a thrilling co-ed baker’s dozen of 16- and 17-year olds. We’ve been rafting all day. The Deschutes river winds through central Oregon, the dry side of a wet state. It’s cold, but that doesn’t stop us from pausing between rapids to jump in, to push each other out of the boat, to clamber onto the cliff called Top Rock and plunge. Cliff jumping is a rush—the hesitation, the leap, the fear as time stretches on the way down, the shock of the water, all of this adds up to more physical sensation than most of us Mormon kids with little-to-no experience with sex or other intoxicants were used to. And then the car, which is sensually overwhelming in its own way. There isn’t anywhere to change, so I’m still in my swimsuit in the sun-warmed car, wrapped in a towel with my head against the window when all of a sudden, without any warning, it happens: hot water trickles out of my ear. It feels like a tablespoon, at least, but when I feel my ear it’s barely wet. It feels amazing—the sudden heat, the feeling of something leaving, but also the knowledge that the water was there in the first place, that even though the day is ending something of it had lingered. It also feels vaguely and thrillingly sexual: something has entered my body, breached the boundaries, and I don’t hate it.
The night before the rafting trip, our adult leaders decide we are all sufficiently virginal to sleep out together under the stars. This is unheard of. A co-ed sleepover? Outside? We talk about sex, sort of, obliquely, but not obliquely enough because we are harshly scolded. The older kids invite me on a walk and then proceed to ignore we while they talk in whispers, asking each other, what’s the worst thing you've ever done. I don't know why I’m there, and then realize, sort of vaguely, that they're having this conversation BECAUSE I’m there. I make it safe.
Of course, I’m terrified of sex. Helpfully, I don’t like any of the boys in my youth group, and in fact I have a persistent and irrational fear that I might somehow wake up one day to find myself married to one of them, stuck in my small town forever (I probably am attracted to some of the girls, but I’m in deep denial about that and will be for years yet). Still, I’m fascinated with them, the very idea of them, the thick miasma of sex that hangs in the air whenever teenagers congregate, yes, even over this extremely virginal group. Dimpled chests. Chaste one-piece suits that still show cleavage. Water guns wielded with phallic intensity by the boys. It's all fascinating and mysterious, and when it happens, the unpredictability of this ear event feels somehow exactly right.
In the years since, I’ve continued to love this feeling, the sudden hot rush of porousness when water leaves my ear. It doesn’t happen every time I swim. Sometimes I can hear the water sloshing around my ear, but it never leaves. Troubling. But other times it does, even hours later: the river, the sea, the pool hangs on until it doesn’t. Usually things leaving are humiliating or gross: the gross trickle of menstrual blood, snot, vomit, a tiny bit of pee when your friends make you laugh so hard you cry. Tears themselves. But this reminds you you're porous, and that porousness is cathartic. It feels good to be open to the world, to carry some of it with you. Every time it happens, I’m reminded of the activity—the ocean, the pool, the creek—but also of that first time that I noticed it, the humid air in the car, the towel wrapped around my waist, the feeling of being open to everything, even openness itself.