When I was 16, I went to Australia as a student ambassador. For nearly three weeks I traveled the continent in pants that could be unzipped to become shorts (don’t judge, it was 2001). I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, saw the sun set on Ayers Rock, and pet a wallaby because Down Under, that’s an animal you find in a petting zoo. But before I went to Australia, I got a boyfriend: a boy who lived down the block who I’d been pining for throughout all of 10th grade. In the last-minute hangouts before my flight, the boy started hinting that we should sleep together before I took off for 18 days. An eternity in teenage years. I thought about it, but it just didn’t feel right. He told me he understood and that was it.
Throughout the trip, I would use the minutes on the international calling card my parents had bought me to check in with him for short chats. He seemed kind of standoffish, but I chalked it up to the fact that he missed his way cool girlfriend who was off playing a didgeridoo. So imagine my surprise when I got home and found out he’d told everyone he’d broken up with me. I’d later hear a rumor that he called me a prude while trying to convince other girls to sleep with him. I was upset, for sure, but not because the coward didn’t have the decency to actually tell me we were broken up. Because I was embarrassed I had ever thought this guy was worth an authentic hand-carved boomerang. He definitely wasn’t.
I used to think about what would have happened if I decided to sleep with him and I know it would have wrecked the 16-year-old me who thought she wasn’t pretty enough to have a boyfriend. I hate to say it, but dating him made me feel like maybe I was wrong. I did deserve to be loved even if I was gangly, pale and prone to acne in a sea of tan, clear-skinned Long Islanders. If I would have let him take my virginity, he also would have taken away that confidence, as fake as it was. He would have made me feel used and worthless. He would have made me question myself and my decision-making, which was pretty good even if I didn’t realize it.
Instead, I came back from my trip with a newfound conviction that had nothing to do with a boy. I had traveled halfway across the world and realized I didn’t owe anyone anything when it came to my body or my time. I figured out the one thing I could always trust was my gut: that it would point me in the right direction. And it has ever since I was that 16-year-old virgin spending her summer in Australia.