Bernard Cooper

Yearly, for the past ten years, a friend of mine has told the tale of how she lost her virginity. At first the details were scant and prosaic. A guy named John. An apartment in New York. But my friend discovered embellishment and, endowed with a gift for swift improvisation, she inflated her story out of proportion, an immense balloon improbably bobbing in an annual parade.

Within her rich imagination, John grew like a prize potato, bulbous shoulders, overeager eyes. And his nickname changed year after year. “John-boy-John.” “Johnny-never-get-enough.” “Double-jointed-John-the-love-machine-in-the-edible-jeans.” John evolved from friend to neighbor to lascivious sailor, a play where one actor assumes all the parts which escalate with desperate passion. Add to that a dawn in Manhattan, and after it was over, her labored breath in humid air as she counted holes in the soundproof ceiling.

Once you tried to count the stars and only a membrane kept you separate from a new way of life. What is your sexual history anyway except scraps that expand when immersed in memory, like those Japanese flowers composed of pressed paper, blooming silently overnight in a bowl of water beside your bed? No sooner do you think, “So-and-so’s kisses were the best,” than the mere idea of a kiss ferments, your mouth warm with foreign breath and heady implications. Why shouldn’t you lie about one or another of your former lovers, their hidden motives, clever retorts, thrilling techniques. The right exaggeration is a wondrous thing; it’s as if you’re asleep and the hands of old admirers are falling upon you, light as leaves. And I’m not talking quantity either, though the total recall of a single encounter would mean a commitment to the infinite.

It’s almost that time of year again, and I’d like to encourage my friend to abandon her last vestige of reserve. I’d appreciate the introduction of some extravagant angle, some subplot worthy of a Hollywood movie: a pilotless plane or a double agent or a hitchhiking ghost. Look, I want to tell her, there are only so many years left, and there are fewer than one hundred nerve ends in the average finger, and our body’s ratio of muscle to fat is shifting like sand in an hourglass. May Johnny’s nickname stretch as long as a limousine, its hyphens like the dividing line on a highway to a hedonist’s haven. Go on, I want to tell her. Make it good.


Bernard Cooper has published two collections of memoirs, Maps to Anywhere and Truth Serum, as well as a novel, A Year of Rhymes. His work has appeared in Story, Ploughshares, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and in anthologies such as The Best American Essays and The Oxford Book of Literature on Aging. His recent publications include a collection of short stories, Guess Again. Cooper is currently working on a new memoir entitled The Bill From My Father. He has won numerous awards and prizes, among them the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award, an O. Henry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Getty Center for the Arts and Humanities Fellowship. He has taught at Antioch/Los Angeles and at the UCLA Writer’s Program and is currently the Art Critic for Los Angeles Magazine.


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