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Clare Almand, welcome to “Modern Love.”
You wrote an essay about a big important date you went on. Can you read me the beginning?
Sure. The candles were lit. The gin and tonic was chugged. His pants were down. I hesitated for a moment before saying, I’ve never actually done this before. I was talking about sex.
Oh my God. This is so personal. I feel like it’s the kind of thing you tell your best friend or you tell your diary. Were you nervous about sharing it, the story?
I should have been.
From the New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is “Modern Love.” Clare Almand is not shy about the fact that she still hadn’t had sex at age 30. She wanted to lose her virginity as soon as possible because she was afraid she was running out of time. Here’s Clare again reading her full essay this time from the top. It’s called “For a 30-Year-Old Virgin, It’s Now or Never.”
The candles were lit. The gin and tonic was chugged. His pants were down. I hesitated for a moment before saying, “I’ve never actually done this before.” I was talking about sex. “Oh, really?” He said, sounding more titillated than concerned. “Are you still going to respect me in the morning,” I said, half joking. “Of course. We can do whatever you want. I’ll respect you either way.”
Several thoughts flashed through my head. My heart is failing. This guy may not stick around long. I’m 30, 30. “OK, let’s do it,” I said. And that’s how I ended up losing my virginity on a fourth date with a middle school teacher that I didn’t even particularly like because I thought I was dying.
I was born with congenital heart disease. I had five major heart surgeries before I was 10. And I’ve had five minor heart surgeries since. I have several metal devices in my chest, including an implanted defibrillator and a mechanical aortic valve. It sounds dire. But mostly, I can function like a normal human being. I even practice yoga, and lift weights, and do a little cardio. Although I have to stop after a minute or two.
But 18 months ago, I realized I was becoming winded from just walking down the street. I actually had to stop and catch my breath from walking. Climbing stairs, even a few, was incredibly hard.
As the months wore on, my energy got lower and lower. I’d go to work, and come home, and rest. That was about it. Even though I was tired all the time, I forced myself to go out on weekends because I refused to believe I was sick. My doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with my heart. They thought it was excess fluid. So they kept increasing my diuretics.
In six months, they had quadrupled my dose. Even though I had completely stopped exercising, I had lost 12 pounds. My face was so gaunt that I was starting to resemble a Disney villain.
I looked awful. But the guy I was dating didn’t think so. He thought I looked thin and hot. And I liked that. I had never had a boyfriend and was hoping he would be the first. Whenever I mentioned that I’ve never had a boyfriend, people always ask why.
It’s not like I’ve had all these wonderful options and I just refuse to be tied down. The simple answer is that I’ve never met someone I wanted to be with who also wanted to be with me. In high school, I had a crush on the popular guy that I never had a chance with. One time, I did get the chance to dance with him to Missy Elliott’s “Work It” at the spring dance sophomore year. As a non-popular late bloomer, it’s clearly a teenage highlight I’m still holding on to 15 years later.
In college, I directed my attention toward my best guy friend from high school who transferred to my school. Even though we hung out every other day, he somehow failed to mention that he was secretly dating my high school friend to me. And in my 20s, I fell for my boss at my first job, a man who was quietly dating his boss’s executive assistant. So what I’m saying is I have impeccable taste in men. I feel like I’m doomed to wander this Earth alone, pining for someone else’s boyfriend.
But in May of last year, I found myself talking to someone on OkCupid who appeared to be single. He was a teacher at the same middle school he went to, which I thought was adorable. We lived on opposite sides of Los Angeles, which made it a long distance relationship. I saw him once a week.
Our first date was brunch at a place halfway between us in Culver City. As we looked over the menu, he mentioned that he didn’t know what a poached egg was. So I ordered an avocado toast with a poached egg, so he could see it. It was weirdly endearing.
He was kind of sweet. But after a few dates, I knew on some level that it wasn’t going to last long. There were red flags, or maybe just things I didn’t like about him. He never complimented me except in the one email where he said I was hot. He never said I looked nice or pretty to my face. Isn’t that dating 101? You see your date and you say, “you look great.” He didn’t do that.
But here was my situation. After almost nine months of feeling weak and seeing cardiologists who were unable to offer much in the way of solutions, I was starting to believe that for me, this was the beginning of the end.
Sometimes, people with complex congenital heart disease get to the point where medicine has done all that it can to delay the inevitable. And since my doctors were so stumped, I believed my time was almost up. And I didn’t want to die a virgin. So I thought I should have sex with this guy.
For our fourth date, he came over to my apartment and I made him dinner. For a starter, I made guacamole. “Let me know if it needs anything,” I said. But I didn’t actually want to know if it needed anything. I just wanted him to say it’s delicious and eat it. Instead, he added a ton of salt.
I thought, what are you doing? I have a heart condition. Later, when I was roasting Brussels sprouts, I didn’t ask for his opinion on them because I know how to make Brussels sprouts. And they’re pretty damn good. But he still came over and insisted that they needed seasoning. So he put oregano on them, on all of them, not just his part.
We finished dinner and then move to the couch. We briefly entertained the idea of watching something on TV. But we both knew where this was going. So we went into my room, and sat on my bed, and you know what happened next. It was fine. And then in the morning, he left at 7:00 to grade papers. Whatever, dude. I saw him the next week. And he made it pretty obvious he wasn’t interested in me as a person. After that, we ghosted each other.
Two months later, when it was clear I was still sick and the medicine wasn’t working, I had a procedure so they could see what was going on with my heart. They found a significant hole between my right ventricle and my aorta called a right ventricular fistula, which they sealed with a metal disk. My health improved within weeks. I had more energy. I didn’t get winded walking down the street or climbing stairs. And I gained weight.
Now, almost a year later, I’m back to my version of normal. I no longer feel the Specter of death looming over me. Given how things turned out, am I upset that I lost my virginity in a rush to a guy who didn’t matter? Not really. I was going through a lot of things that weren’t normal.
People like to say, there’s no such thing as normal, as if it’s supposed to make people who are abnormal feel better. But we know the truth. Having 10 heart surgeries before you turn 30 is not normal. Having your health rapidly declined to the point that you think you’re dying at age 30 is not normal. Being a 30-year-old virgin is not normal.
I saw an opportunity to feel just a little more normal and took it. And now, I’m just like every other woman who’s had a penis inside her.
Clare, I have about a billion questions to ask you. And I’ll do that after the break.
Clare, I love your essay. I absolutely love it. And towards the end, you have this line, I saw an opportunity to feel a little more normal and I took it. Do you feel normal now?
so I was going through this heart condition and this new heart problem. At the same time, I’m dealing with the feeling that I’m getting older and I still haven’t done this big thing. I haven’t had this very human experience that most people have had. And trying to reconcile I’m sick and I don’t know what’s going to happen. And I really want to have this human experience.
So after you did it and you had sex for the first time, did you tell anyone?
I have — i have a little brother who is 11 years younger than me. And when I lost my virginity at 3, he was 19. And so I called him, and I was like, are you still a virgin? Because I was hoping that I had lost my virginity before my little brother. And he was like, no, dude.
I feel more comfortable in my skin. I mean, the essay is about otherness and feeling different from other people. And I’ve always felt that a little bit just because of all the heart surgery I’ve had. But I guess I do feel more normal for me. I don’t feel so different.
What was so important to you about feeling normal? Why was that such a desirable bar for you at this point in your life?
I think it mostly has to do with finding a partner. And I wanted to cut down on the list of things that made me less desirable as a partner. You know, I have a congenital heart disease. And I’ve never had sex. And in that way, I’m glad I have crossed that off the list. Every kind of sexual milestone that I’ve reached was because I felt too old to have not done this.
So like, when I finally made out with a guy, I was like drunk at a bar. I mean, to be totally honest, I’ve had open heart surgeries more times than I’ve had sex.
I mean, not many people can say that, for sure. But I mean, I also want to say that virginity is a construct. It’s something that society tells women, especially women, that they have to guard. That it’s something you have to lose. But it’s clear virginity really meant something to you. What did it mean?
You know, I grew up Christian, where we’re taught stay pure till you’re married. And I thought I was going to do that. And then my standards just kept getting lower and lower. As the years wore on, I was like, well, I don’t need to wait till marriage. I want to wait till I’m in love, or wait till I have a boyfriend, or wait till I really like someone who really likes me.
And it just didn’t happen. It got to this point. I mean, I thought sex was really special. I still do. I don’t enjoy casual dating. And for me, it was like — it just meant I’m waiting for it to mean something. And then it didn’t. And then it was just something in the way of me feeling like everyone else.
So this night happened in 2017. In the last six years, has your approach to dating and sex changed?
Yeah, I act like everything’s fine. But there’s been a pattern of my health declining over the previous 10 years. And I have always just gone through life thinking I’m going to be fine. Because when I have a problem, they fix it. But then the pandemic happened.
And I got really sick again. I had a hole in my heart in the same place. They did the same procedure to plug it with a metal disk. It didn’t hold. I had open heart surgery.
It was 11 hours long. The surgeon came out and told my mom, like, we don’t know if she’s going to make it. We can’t stop the bleeding. And that had never happened before. I’d always come through my surgeries and everything was fine. And after that, I think that was kind of the real turning point where I was like, oh you know what? I’m kind of awesome. I’m Clare Almand. And cheating death is kind of my thing.
[LAUGHS]: And that’s actually your bio on Hinge.
Yeah, that’s it. And no one I’ve dated has really appreciated that. And that’s what I deserve. I deserve that.
Yes, you do deserve that. Are you dating these days?
I’m hoping to date more. I mean, I’ve got a brand new ascending aorta.
Yeah, you do, girl.
And aortic valve.
Say it again.
And I just got my pacemaker defibrillator replaced. So I’m like, I’m all powered up.
Wow. I love that. I mean, are you looking for something different than you were in the time that you wrote the essay?
Yeah, I think so. Back then, I thought my life hadn’t begun because I hadn’t met my person. And I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m just like, my life is happening now. I have a lot to offer. And I’m just really excited about the future that I’m going to build for myself. I’m still hopeful for meeting a romantic partner. But it’s not the be all, end all. It’s not the main goal anymore, which is great.
Clare, Thank you so much for coming on the show today.
It has been a blast.
The story you just heard was submitted by someone like you. And we’re always looking for good stories and new perspectives for the “Modern Love” column, no matter where you come from or who you are. To find out how to submit your own story, go to nytimes.com/modernlovesubmission.
“Modern Love” is produced by Julia Botero, Kristina Djossa, and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. This episode was mixed by Sofia Landman. And our show was recorded by Maddy Masiello. The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music by Elisheba Ittoop, Roman Niemesto, Pat McCusker and Diane Wong. Digital production by Nell Gallogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love Projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.