When I was 14, I woke up one sunny morning to see a guy standing over me in his underwear. He was French, his name was Jean, and I was staying with his family for a week during a study abroad program. They lived in a suburb of Paris. Considering I had only known Jean for three days and it was 7 in the morning, it was way too early in our friendship and the day to see him in his underwear.
But there he stood, as if wearing underwear in front of an American girl sleeping on the floor of his sister’s room was a totally normal way to wake her up.
“Bonjour,” he said.
I shook my head, hoping this was a dream. When I looked up again, he was still there. This was really happening.
“Bonjour,” he repeated. “I have something for you.”
He gestured to a piece of paper in his hand, much to my relief. I sat up, and immediately regretted sitting up. Masked only by a thin layer of cotton, his dick was now in my direct eye line. I really didn’t want it to be. I hadn’t even had coffee yet. Yes, I drank coffee when I was 14. I’ve been drinking coffee since I could walk.
Don’t mistake my coffee habits as a sign of early maturity. At 14, I was completely asexual. I had never touched another person, never seen another person naked, never seen myself naked, never touched myself. I had never even had a sexy thought. Ever. Sex just wasn’t on my radar.
Jean stood in front of me, his cotton dick assaulting my eyes. He began reading the paper he held in his hand. I slowly realized that it was a love letter. To my total shock, it was a love letter he had written for me. How did this happen?
No one ever fell in love with me. Even in elementary school, when a creepy stalker kid in my grade got suspended for leaving notes in all the girls’ mailboxes, he had never left a note for me. In middle school, I had a teacher who was fired for touching girls’ bra straps. He had touched every girls’ bra in my grade – except for mine. People just didn’t fall for me. I wasn’t giving off any vibes that said, “Hey, I’m a sexy kid.” As a moody and extremely shy 14-year-old, I wasn’t even giving off friendly vibes. How had this French guy gotten vibes from me?
I sat listening, in shock, as Jean professed his love for me in faltering English and super tight underwear. I wondered if the underwear was supposed to be part of his presentation. Like, had he planned to read this letter in this particular outfit? And if so, was it supposed to entice me?
Jean finished reading. He said he had stayed up all night using his French to English dictionary, making sure that every word was perfect. “What do you think?” he asked.
Suddenly, sex had gone from off my radar to in my face. In fact, sex in my face is the best way I can summarize my experience as a teenager visiting Europe.
“What do I think?” I asked back. “Um, can I have some coffee?”
“Of course,” he said. He didn’t move.
“Okay, do you mind if I get dressed?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said.” He still didn’t leave the room. He was staring at me, smiling, waiting for me to say I loved him back.
I grabbed my clothes out of my suitcase and ran to the bathroom. As I got dressed, I panicked about what to say to this guy. If I told him I didn’t love him, I would still have to stay with his family, spending the next week in awkward, silent co-habitation. If I told him I did love him, I would almost certainly be having my first French orgy by nightfall. As a now 29-year-old, the orgy obviously sounds awesome. But at the time, I was horrified at the possibility of making physical contact with anyone.
I brushed my teeth. I brushed my teeth again. I tried to stall and come up with a plan. Where had he gotten this crazy idea to fall in love with me? Had he known ever since he signed up to host an exchange student that she would be the one, no matter who she was? Had he known ever since I had sent my official school picture – nerdy smile, arms crossed, standing in front of a chalky blue background? Had he known since I stepped in the door since that rainy night I arrived on the train, my hair as frizzy as a giant tumbleweed? What had I done to make it seem like I was sexy?
And that’s when I remembered our conversation two nights ago. It wasn’t exactly romantic, but it had definitely been about sex.
I had been eating dinner with Jean and his family: dad, mom, and two sisters. I had been babbling on and on in French, feeling really confident about my bilingual abilities, when suddenly the entire table fell completely silent. I looked around. Crap. Was it something I said? Jean pulled me away from the table, up the stairs to his room.
“Hey,” he said, “you have to stop saying that word. You’re offending my parents.”
My heart stopped. The thought of having said the wrong thing in French, when I didn’t even know what I had said, was really scary. I had never felt so out of control of my ability to express myself.
“What?” I asked frantically, “What word? What did I say?”
It seemed like years passed before his response. I waited, on edge, to see how bad or how embarrassing it had been.
“You keep saying ‘je suis excitée,’” Jean said. “This means ‘I am sexually aroused.’”
I gasped in horror.
“It means what?!” I shrieked, thinking back to the conversation at dinner. I had said, “je suis tres excitée pour aller à Paris!” I thought I had said, “I am excited to go to Paris,” but I had actually been saying, “I am sexually aroused to go to Paris.” I had said this many, many times since I’d arrived at the family’s house. I had so little in common with them that I just kept talking about my upcoming visit to the capital. Now they thought I was some kind of raunchy American girl who jerked off to the City of Lights. Me, who had never even thought about sex.
As we walked back to the table, I was filled with anger towards my French teacher, who had let me say that I was aroused –about everything– every single day in French class for a year.
“Je suis desolée,” I said to the family. They nodded, and we continued eating our baguettes like nothing had happened.
After hearing Jean’s love letter, I suddenly realized that Jean must have gotten the wrong idea about me from my French faux-pas. Maybe hearing me say “I’m wet, I’m wet, I’m wet” a million times had subconsciously filled his brain with thoughts of me as a sexual person. If the city of Paris could make me wet, what couldn’t?
I realized I had to do something that would make me seem completely unavailable, without making Jean mad at me. I stepped out of the bathroom and walked back to underwear-Jean, still waiting by my blow-up mattress for an answer.
“Jean,” I said, “I’m flattered, but I have… a boyfriend.”
“You have a boyfriend?” he asked. “Where? I don’t see him.”
“Well, he’s back home,” I said, “in the U.S.”
Jean shrugged. “If he’s not here, you shouldn’t let him stop you from enjoying your experience.” He smirked. Damn, I forgot this guy was French.
I explained that my boyfriend and I were monogamous, even on trips. Jean grilled me about this guy who I was supposedly dating, suspecting (correctly) that I had made it up. As I replied to his questions, I described the first guy I could think of: Josh Hartnett, a real teen heartthrob at the time.
What was his name? Josh, obviously. What did he do? He was an actor. What did he look like? Brown hair, a shy smile, a kind of sexy hunched over pose that said, “I don’t care about anything” and “I care so much about you” all at the same time.
Finally, Jean believed me. But from that point on, he totally changed. Rather than being a cool, nice French guy who was hosting me and showing me around town, he became this really angry French guy who constantly made fun of my boyfriend Josh. He even forced me make a phone call to him, long-distance, watching as I dialed a fake number and talked to no one about how much I missed him. I was beyond uncomfortable and tried my best to avoid him, which involved a lot of staying in my room. I wished I really could call Josh just to have someone to talk to about this.
Meanwhile, Jean sulked around the house because I wouldn’t hold hands with him at school, or accompany him on his pink motorcycle. He tore up the love letter he wrote for me into little tiny bits, and said he hoped one day I could write a letter that beautiful for JOSH.
A week later, I packed my bags and took the train to Paris. It felt amazing to be leaving Jean’s house for good. When I arrived, I couldn’t believe how beautiful the city was. Paris was the best thing I’d ever seen.
I sat by the Seine, listening to the sounds of boats moving through the water, basking in the soothing hum of people speaking effortless French all around me as they sat in pairs, drinking wine. I watched the sun fade slowly into a sparkling night, with lights shimmering on every possible surface. I walked by the Louvre and through the gardens, immersing myself in a place that has so much life, and simultaneously so much history.
And actually, I did feel as close to “excitée” as I ever had. At the risk of sounding too much like Carrie Bradshaw describing New York City, being in Paris was a lot like having my first crush. Every detail charmed me; I sat up all night staring out my window, so infatuated that I couldn’t sleep. I never wanted to leave. As an asexual 14-year-old, if I were going to get aroused by anything, it would have been this city.
As I took in the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, I suddenly felt vindicated. There had been nothing wrong or inaccurate with having declared, over and over again, that I was wet to go Paris. I felt sad for Jean’s family now, realizing that they took their own city for granted. They would never see Paris as sexy as I saw it.
Caitlin Bergh, a stand-up comedian and storyteller, was named as one of the “rawest and raunchiest stand-ups in the city” in her former home of Chicago (Chicago Reader). Bergh co-runs The Last Book Review in downtown L.A. and Free Skate Comedy in Hollywood. She is a co-writer, co-producer and co-star of the web series #Hashtag (www.hashtagseries.com), which Indiewire identified as a potential “next Broad City.” You can find her on twitter & instagram: @caitlinebergh.