Iris figured she was pretty calm about the concept of sex shops, and like most feelings uncommon to teenagers, this was a nerve-wracking position for a teenager to be in.
The first thing you should know about Iris is that at the time this story takes place, her defining purpose in life was what she referred to in her diary as her “Journey of Sexual Self-Discovery.” Her list of sexual firsts had grown rapidly since her thirteenth birthday, two and a half years before, had plummeted her mind straight into what her father referred to as “the gutter.” There was “first time masturbating,” “first explicit-rated fanfiction,” “first time masturbating with a showerhead,” “first time watching porn,” and “first time masturbating with a toothbrush,” just to name a few—and for every experience, she had made copious notes. Some day, she was sure, when there were fewer potential first times left, she would want to look back fondly on all her coming-of-age-epiphany orgasms, and until then—well, sex was all she could focus on anyway, so it wasn’t as though there was anything else she’d rather be writing about.
The sex shop Iris, Sophie, and Minh were standing in front of at the moment our story begins—the sex shop Iris felt eerily, embarrassingly calm about—was, of course, a first in and of itself. But more than that, it represented a new era of firsts for Iris: firsts with other people.
In other words: real sex firsts.
Sure, Iris had “first kiss” on that list of hers already. She also had “first make-out” (separate category), “first time having her boob touched,” and even “first time touching someone else’s vulva,” which almost, almost seemed like it should count as sex, but which Iris was sure no one else would think quite made the cut. The vulva in question—which Iris had touched one afternoon that past spring for exactly four seconds before her mother had come stomping up the stairs to her room with an after-school snack—belonged to Lina, Iris’ best friend. After Iris’ mom’s arrival, however, the moment had passed (although Iris still remembered that first shock of a wetness not her own, and in fact would remember it for the rest of her life), and so far nothing else had happened between them, much to Iris’ frustration.
Iris and Lina would in fact have sex one day, a few years after this story takes place. However, even if Iris had known this at the time, she was not interested in waiting any longer. So she started talking with a guy from her old school who had a large collection of medieval weaponry and a basement room with a separate entrance from the rest of the house, and now she was in the market for some condoms.
“Are we really gonna do this?” asked Minh. The sex shop window display involved stuffed animals wearing strap-ons, and Minh was staring everywhere but there.
“Oh my god,” said Sophie, “I wish I was drunk for this.” Sophie had in fact been drunk only twice in her life at the time this story takes place, but neither Iris nor Minh knew this. Both of them laughed nervously at such a worldly pronouncement.
It should be noted that Sophie and Minh, unlike Lina, were not Iris’s best friends. They were, in fact, just two girls from Iris’s Spanish class with whom Iris had done several group projects. They were also pretty sure (correctly) that they were straight, while Iris was pretty sure (also correctly) that she was not, so they couldn’t relate to a good chunk of the items on Iris’ Journey of Sexual Self-Discovery list thus far, although they didn’t seem to find it weird the time Iris tested the waters by mentioning that one of the girls in a movie they watched in class was pretty hot. What they were, however, was, to quote Iris’ health teacher, “sexually active.” Sophie had a boyfriend, and Minh had a boy who was not a boyfriend, so now that Iris had things set up with a boy as well, Sophie and Minh had seemed like the best people for Iris to go to.
None of them had been to a sex shop before, but when Iris brought it up while the three of them were attempting to make churros for their latest Spanish assignment, they all agreed they were in. And now here they were, standing outside their agreed-upon destination, shooting nervous glances at the polar bear stuffie in the window wearing a large plastic icicle strapped between its furry legs.
Iris figured the three of them had equivocated long enough. She had (in her head, anyway) a reputation to uphold for sexual adventure. She walked up to the door with a purposeful stride. “Let’s do this,” she said, and the three of them stepped inside.
There are a lot of things you can figure out about sex from movies, no matter what Iris’s health teacher once told her class. You can figure out you’re bisexual, even if the characters you’re watching are all straight. You can figure out you might be into bondage, even if the scene you’re watching is being played for laughs. You can learn that sometimes people have sex with most of their clothes on, and that people have weird feelings about lube, and that some people get turned on by getting a massage. But neither Iris, nor Sophie, nor Minh had been able to figure out what the interior of a sex shop would look like from any of their cinematic experiences.
Minh expected it to be a bit less gaudy. Sophie expected it to be a bit less clean. And Iris expected it to be a bit more life-changing, if she was being perfectly honest.
Iris’ first thought was that, despite the whips and crotchless panties, the store didn’t look so different from any other store Iris had been to over the course of her fifteen and a half years of life to date. Wasn’t sex supposed to be more…interesting than this? And wasn’t she already past the point in her aforementioned journey where she should feel quite so nervous about being here? Now that the interior was before Iris’ eyes, she couldn’t quite remember what she had been picturing before she’d entered, but she knew it hadn’t included quite so many accoutrements of 21st-century capitalism. The clearance section packed with bachelorette party kits, the orange-tagged sale prices, the framed return policy hanging behind the bored-looking cashier: all had remained outside the scope of her mind’s eye.
Now, she shoved the last slivers of her previous imaginings away, focused on the scene before her, and waited for the Moment, the thing she would write about that evening.
When it didn’t come, Iris nodded to herself. There was still time. She would just need to stay at the ready, open to whatever grand experience she hoped—desperately, and incorrectly—that she was about to gain.
Minh and Sophie had already located the condoms. They were collected in buckets along one wall, each bucket stuffed to the brim with a different kind. A sample condom of each variety was on display, as well, stretched over a colourful assortment of dildos arranged around and on top of the containers.
There were vibrators, too, in pink cardboard boxes and shiny plastic packaging stacked on nearby shelves. Iris, Minh and Sophie had floated the idea of getting that kind of thing as well, but Iris decided to wait and see if the other two were actually interested before examining them too closely. For now, she walked past these and other toys, shooting sideways glances that she erroneously hoped were inconspicuous, and joined Minh and Sophie in front of the condom wall.
“Don’t try that one,” said Minh, pointing at a box of condoms labelled Summer Heat Sensations. “I heard Brianna and Saud tried one of those once and his dick was burned for a week.”
Sophie put the condom she’d been holding back into the box.
“What about this one?” said Iris, holding up a shiny gold foil wrapper. “It looks so fancy.” She laughed, although she hadn’t really managed to tell a joke, so she had to admit it was understandable that no one else laughed with her.
“Oh my god, Iris,” said Sophie. “I think that’s for…you know…”
Iris, in fact, did not know. It was a frustrating sensation, and not one Iris had expected when suggesting this outing. Was Sophie more of an expert than she was?
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Obviously. Right.”
“Wait,” said Minh, “I don’t get it. What are they?”
For one horrifying moment, Iris was worried Sophie was waiting for her to explain, but thankfully, before Iris could decide whether to open her mouth or not, Sophie said, “They’re for if the guy is, like, really big.”
“Oooooh,” said Minh. She grabbed one out of the box and held up a standard condom for comparison. Sure enough, the gold-foil square was slightly larger.
“Is your guy—like, does he need one of these?” said Sophie, looking at Iris.
Once again, Iris had no idea. But it felt like the kind of thing she should know about someone she was about to have sex with, so she nodded.
“Wow,” said Minh. “You know, I’m kind of glad Hayden isn’t too big.” She eyed the largest of the display dildos. Iris had to admit, she wasn’t quite sure how something like that would, well, fit.
“I don’t know,” said Iris, “I guess I’ll see how it goes.” She picked up another one of the gold condoms, and then four more, until she had a stack of six held neatly in her hand.
“You totally will, oh my god!” said Sophie, laughing. Iris knew she wasn’t laughing at her, but she still felt slightly out of sync as she laughed along.
Minh and Sophie grabbed an assortment of normal-sized condoms. Those were probably the ones Iris actually needed, but it wasn’t like she could admit now that she’d been making her soon-to-be-sex-partner’s dick size up this whole time. She’d just have to do this all over again without her current companions, although maybe she’d just go to a drug store the next time.
This whole thing wasn’t turning out quite how Iris had imagined it would. She was supposed to know all about this stuff already. She was supposed to feel at home in here, a sense of affinity to the adult world she had been ready to join for what felt like a lifetime already. Instead, where she had expected familiarity, she was left with a reminder of everything she didn’t know, and where she had expected some kind of as-yet-unnameable new experience she was left with the soft vapidity of labels and packaging.
Minh and Sophie had drifted over to the shelves of vibrators, so Iris drifted over too. For a long moment they just stared. The packaging was covered with pictures of women rubbing their backs and necks and cheeks with sleek plastic phalluses, and despite her growing unease, Iris felt the gleeful satisfaction of uncovering a secret about the codes of the adult world.
She tried to think of something clever to say about it, but she hadn’t liked what had happened the last time she opened her mouth, so she simply scanned the shelves silently, letting Sophie and Minh comment.
“This one looks like a rubber duck!” said Sophie, holding up a box. “Can you imagine someone having that in their bathroom? You wouldn’t even know.”
“My mom would,” said Minh. “One time I found a pair of handcuffs and a blindfold in her desk drawer. She knows all about this stuff.”
“Lucky,” said Iris.
“What? No! I don’t want to think about my parents having sex,” said Minh.
If Iris had been offered a choice just then between trying to explain herself and being sucked down into the depths of the earth, never to be heard from again, she would have picked the latter. Regrettably, this choice was not on offer.
“I just mean,” tried Iris, and then she’d started talking, so now she couldn’t stop even though she wasn’t sure what to say. “I just mean, my parents would be so weird about this, and I wish they wouldn’t.”
Iris’ parents did have particular ideas about sex that were very different from Minh’s. For instance, Iris’s dad was currently reading a book called Porn: Tragedy of a Generation. Iris had flipped through it the previous evening, and then stood in the shower wondering if, as the book warned, she was having her sexual peak too young and would spend the rest of her life sad and alone, seeking out stranger and stranger porn subgenres, like tentacles or something. The book talked about tentacles a bunch.
But this is not a story about jaded girls and stolen innocence. This is also not a story with any grand epiphany, however, and as Iris stumbled over her explanation for why she wished her dad bought light bondage supplies instead of anti-pornography treatises, she felt more lost than ever.
“That’s fair,” said Sophie, “but also parents plus sex is, like, ew.”
Minh mimed shuddering, and Iris made herself laugh along. Maybe she shouldn’t have come to this thing with straight people. Maybe she should have come with Lina, best friend Lina, Lina whose vulva she wanted to touch again, Lina whom she could talk to about almost anything but couldn’t quite imagine in a place like this. Maybe she shouldn’t have come at all. Maybe Iris felt weird about sex and also knew nothing about sex and also thought too much about sex all the time.
“I think I’m gonna get this one,” said Sophie. She held up a comparatively subdued package, printed with just a woman’s face thrown back in ecstasy. “Small, easy to hide from my grandma.”
“And five different speeds,” giggled Minh. “I’m going with this.” She reached for something pink and significantly gaudier. Perfect for G-spot stimulation! said the package, and Iris tried to remember what exactly the G-spot was. Was it in your ass? Was Minh buying a toy to put up…there?
“How about you, Iris?” said Sophie.
Iris stared at the colourful mess of packages. The more she considered them, the more worst-case scenarios her brain conjured up, chief among them the image of the family cat being attracted to the buzzing as she tried the vibrator out, pouncing, then racing down the stairs with the toy in its jaws and depositing it in one of her mom’s shoes right before she left for work.
If Iris was being honest, she liked the look of the smaller vibrators, bullet-like, ones that could slip into her pocket and fit nicely against her clit. But even Sophie’s small choice was bigger than that, and Minh’s was for a body part Iris wasn’t even sure of the details on. Iris didn’t want to look like she wasn’t ready for her first time with a guy, especially considering everyone present knew she also liked girls, and they might therefore think she was a bit confused about the whole penis thing. She wanted to seem up for anything. She had assumed she was up for anything right up until the moment she had entered this shop.
Iris reached out and grabbed a large, purple vibrator, displayed in a clear plastic package. It wasn’t quite as big as some of the things on display, but Iris was pretty sure it wasn’t small. She wondered why she couldn’t tell for sure—it wasn’t as though she hadn’t seen dicks in porn. Although she never really focussed on them. And honestly, when she thought about it, she didn’t really watch that much porn. Some of it made her feel kind of weird. It was more that she wanted to be the kind of person who watched porn, if she was being totally honest.
“This one,” said Iris.
Minh whistled. “Size queen!” said Sophie, and although this was yet another concept Iris was unfamiliar with, she could work it out from context like a rejected SAT question.
They paid without incident. The guy at the counter still seemed bored, as though he were a cashier at a discount clothing store instead of somewhere with boob-shaped pasta. As he packed their purchases into mercifully opaque plastic shopping bags, Iris wondered how many condoms he handled per day, how many bottles of lube, how many pairs of candy-necklace underwear.
The three of them grabbed their bags and left the store. It was late afternoon, sunny and warm, and Iris blinked in the glare, holding her bag tightly as they began heading towards the bus stop. The three of them still had a long bus ride worth of conversation to make on their way back to their quiet, not-quite-suburban neighbourhood, and the thought sank further into the pit of Iris’ stomach with each step.
“I’m honestly so glad we did that,” said Minh. “I feel, I don’t know, more prepared, I guess?”
“Totally,” said Sophie. She peeked into her bag and giggled. “I can’t wait to see Ben’s face when I tell him what I got.”
Minh turned to Iris. “Thanks for suggesting this,” she said.
Iris wasn’t sure how she managed to shrug, but she did. Her smile, however, came out as more of a grimace. Her bag was heavy with her size-large purchases. Her body felt heavy with something else, a confusion she didn’t want, swirling and eddying against the facts she knew about herself. She could already tell—her first correct assumption of the past hour—that her diary entry tonight would have a considerably different tone than what she had anticipated: confusion where she’d though there’d be certainty, discomfort where she thought there’d be excitement, and most of all, that fizzled-out confidence, the way her Journey of Sexual Self-Discovery felt endless and murky all of a sudden. In fact, a few years after this incident takes place, Iris would realize that the endlessness of her sexual journey wasn’t such a bad thing after all; but that is another story altogether.
For now, Iris simply nodded, and breathed, in-out, weighted with something she did not yet know how to name. “No worries,” she said. “Thanks for coming with me.”
Alice Gauntley is a writer and public health worker. She lives in Tkaronto/Toronto, on the traditional territory of many Indigenous nations, including the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, the Wendat, and the Mississaugas of the Credit. Her fiction has also appeared in the Hart House Review where she was the winner of the 2018 Hart House Literary Contest.