The first time I had sex was Halloween of my freshman year. He texted me that morning to remind me “I wasn’t like the other girls,” and snuck shots of Vodka into my Copa lemonade. I think I wanted him to be my boyfriend even though he had the restless energy of a frat boy with too much free time, so I let him hit it from behind in his twin XL bed. He cuddled me for 20 perfunctory minutes before declaring his friend had bottle service at some downtown. He was planning on going but I could stay as long as I liked. After fucking me once more the next day, we didn’t talk for a month, and then sporadically after, like the contact was clearing his conscience.

It was nothing like the fantasy I’d crafted in my head—a mix of reading too many teen–beach novels during recess and Harry Styles fan fiction under my covers, I wanted my first time to be cinematic. There was going to be romance with a capital “R,” the soft strums of moany indie music, and lots of cuddling with the lights dimmed. In real life, it felt like a cruel subplot ripped from the Gossip Girl writer’s room, and I walked home from the quad that night feeling more like Season 1 Jenny and less like Season 5 Blair. 

For a while, the scenario—and my emotional memory of it—sucked the wind out of me. I’d spent my high school years settling for the pragmatic option. I had my first kiss with a college–aged stranger at a Knocks concert and dated my first boyfriend out of boredom and worry. I didn’t want to come to college steeped in naivety and branded with the inexperience that makes you believe a guy when he tells you that you aren’t like the other girls, and yet here I was, still getting played after swapping romance for logic. 

Now I know this trope is played out. There have been countless “Modern Love” essays about awkward first times and disappointing first times and dramatic first times. Our favorite rom–coms tell the triumphant story of the do–over. There’s Groundhog Day and 27 Dresses and It’s Complicatedall of which promise a gratifying second act. But what these stories don’t tell you is that most times a second act doesn’t come. And in that case, what do you do next?

In the weeks after, I let the night loop behind my eyelids. I never stopped watching my memory of it, my brain focused on my flaws. The slight roll of my stomach, my inability to give a good blowjob, the way I struggled to make small talk after—these were the things that rendered me discarded. “If I had only been a little bit more,” I remember saying to a friend over Hill Dining Hall cupcakes, "then maybe he wouldn’t be so embarrassed he touched me.” 

Blame is a heavy thing, and I crumbled under the burden of it. I spent the majority of last November catatonic in my bed, eyes aimlessly pointed at the ceiling and hair always a little unwashed. My virginity mattered more to me than I wanted to admit. It was less that I was hurt he was fucking other people and more that I was ashamed I'd ever let him fuck me. I reached out to friends months after they'd ghosted me, asking for lunch and forgiveness. I try—however imperfectly—to preserve the things that matter most. And if my virginity was so important, then why did it only take some buffalo wings and rum to let it go?

Soon, I stopped going to classes. I took long naps and watched Clueless on repeat until the sight of Paul Rudd made me nauseous. My friends made me nauseous, too. Bound by his gag of “keep this quiet—I have too much drama as is,” the story of my first time wasn’t really mine anymore. Publicly, I was feisty, my friends giggling when I mentioned all the positions we’d tried. Privately, I kept asking Google if it was possible to regain my virginity.

As it turned out, it wasn’t. I felt stuck. But I refused to let this man ruin my first year of college, let alone my relationship with intimacy, so I decided to let casual sex become my thing. I found solace in how guys still wanted me, even if my brain said otherwise. Every weekend, I woke up in another guys bed, hand always loosely strewn over my waist. We never cuddled and I never orgasmed. Most never texted me back. Sure, their physical presence blocked the intrusive thoughts, but my stomach still felt hollow. Empty. “Why,” I kept asking myself, “am I not enough for them to want to stay with me?”

And then—it clicked. As cliche as it sounds, my virginity doesn’t define me. It never did.

As much as movies are about selling us easy, fake endings, they are also about resiliency. We love Groundhog Day because Bill Murray refuses to give up—he learns piano, French, and how to sculpt ice all so Andie McDowell will spend one night with him. There’s freedom in the pursuit. Sure, my first time was the antithesis of my fantasy, but that doesn’t mean my fifteenth or fortieth time has to be. 

Admittedly, I still think about that night sometimes. The holiday will always bring flashbacks just as consistently as it does candy wrappers and horror films. But they no longer upset me in the ways they once did. Fantasies don’t breed strength. Reality does.