HORMONES ON PARADE
I think I'd reached the age of five when I took to playing doctor seriously. Five or six. Young enough to provoke a collective raised eyebrow from the American Medical Association. Nevertheless, I commenced building a practice and kept it up for a number of years, so to speak.
My memories, for the most part, begin around age four. Some of the clearest of that early crop involve a neighborhood girl named Tricia. We were buddies, Tricia and I. Same age, lived on the same street, spent lots of time together. We were aware of the differences between us, that boy/girl stuff -- differing length of hair, clothing, the toys our parents bought us, all that. Sweet, intriguing contrasts, with none of the impact that one discovery had: the difference in our plumbing. An earth-shaking discovery, that one, provoking curiosity that would not be denied. And on a chilly, gray afternoon soon after that revelation, we found ourselves in Tricia's bedroom where we got into her bed and investigated each other's bodies. It was a gentle process, respectful even. I remember Tricia smiling at me, and I realized that this was what it was like when someone cared enough about you to open up and share their most private self. Quiet filled the house, and the event had an intimate, soft, hushed feel that stayed with me. Now, actually, I think my subsequent years of playing doctor may have been an extended attempt to recapture this unexpected moment of peace. I never found it again, though God knows I tried.
So I played quite a lot of doctor for a while there, any time and just about any place I found an interested partner. I inspected physiques of both genders, though girls were clearly in a sublime, mystical class of their own.
Girls seemed so wonderfully mysterious and alluring, with elusive, graceful qualities that attracted me irresistibly, like a fly to powdered sugar. Something about them seemed to promise the transformation of life, a completion of some sort. What that meant, I didn't know, and I wasted no time wondering about it. I just pursued.
And the basis of that pursuit was a simple hunt for physical intimacy, something not found at home. Home supplied intimacy of a sort, the kind of intimacy you'd expect to find in a small house occupied by five bodies. More of an excessive familiarity, really. I never heard my parents say the words "I love you" to each other or to me or anyone else. No hugging or holding, no displays of sexuality. Much of the physical contact, in fact, came through fits of anger that exploded into violence -- not, in general, the kind of attention I pined for. In fact, the only occasion where I can consciously remember being held took place when a troop of boy scouts my mother and father were denparenting got wildly excited about something and came boiling up out of the basement. Joyously hyperactive, hopped up on who knows what -- boy scout bonding, sugar, airplane glue -- they grabbed me and carried me above their heads as they surged around our little dining room. I'd never seen the ceiling close up before and I studied it from my new elevation, overwhelmed and cautiously pleased by the sudden attention and activity, by that strange,unprecedented moment.
And that's it. In my very young years, I imagine there must have been physical loving, but by the time I was old enough for conscious memory the tap had been turned off for whatever reason. We are trophic beings, though, drawn to what we need. So I began searching for intimacy outside of my home in ways that seemed logical and meaningful to my little brain.
There were unwritten rules for the game of doctor, a code of behavior to keep it from sliding over the edge into chaos. Mostly, you had to rein in any intensity and adopt a sort of child's version of the clinical attitude, modulating any visible enjoyment or pleasure so that you didn't seem too psyched. It was okay to conduct a minute and painstaking examination, working closely enough that your nose was practically inserted into the patient's body part. It was okay to change the game so that it wasn't always medical -- you could go the domestic route and simulate marriage, you could play out a captive situation. But, bottom line, you didn't make fun of the other person or the other person's body, ever, under any circumstances, or your medical career was finished. Also, you had to take every reasonable precaution to prevent discovery. If you got caught, all codes of behavior were out the window. Everyone could point fingers at each other, jabber about whose fault it was, and it was legitimate. Anything to minimize the punishment. I did get busted by some kids once, playing behind a garage with another little boy who lived up at the end of my street. Seriously mortifying, but a good object lesson on the importance of scouting out a location.
This phase of my young life ground to a halt after me getting burned by a friend and his sister, huddled in the bushes in their back yard. The old "we'll-show-you-ours-after-you-show-us -yours" scam. They not only didn't deliver after I did, they laughed at my embarrassed surprise. A scene so humiliating that I hung up my stethoscope and swore off the game, a decision that I know now to have been sound and long overdue. It was a dangerous, unwholesome way of life, I think, and by that point I'd been around the proverbial track enough times that I'd lost my tolerance for the high-risk lifestyle.
So I left genitology behind. And shortly after I'd gone abstinent, I reached that point where open interest in the opposite gender became forbidden. I don't know what it was -- a strategic withdrawal of male energy, maybe, storing up all our ergs and BTUs in preparation for the onset of hormones and the resulting nonstop psychosis -- but a couple of years before women and sex were to become the focal point of existence, my peers decided that a display of anything other than ridicule and scorn toward girls indicated a suspicious inclination toward sissyness, faggotry or communism. The boy who found himself on the receiving end of that kind of judgment risked jeering derision at the very least, ostracism and numerous beatings at worst. So no one bucked the party line. Girls were cootie-laden creatures, and the guys adopted the sneering veneer of budding women-haters, at least within around other guys. In truth, of course, most of us were still helpless female worshipers, but since we could no longer express it directly we came up with creative, carefully camouflaged demonstrations of young heterosexual wackiness.
And so in fourth or fifth grade, the kids in my class acted out a nifty version of the war between the sexes. Groups of one gender scoped out the representatives of the other gender, looking for one or two off by themselves, alone, vulnerable. Long, languid periods of reconnoitering erupting into sudden raids, hit-and-run skirmishes aimed at taking prisoners of the enemy sex. Which meant that if a guy played his cards right, he could actually find himself captured by women -- an unbelievably tantalizing prospect. Nothing much happened once you were a prisoner, of course. No real mistreatment, no unspeakable sexual whims. No one actually knew what to do with captive combatants, all the deliciously tense anticipation – the game's foreplay, I suppose -- gave way to boredom, impatience, existential disgust.
Like my medical career, the war skidded to an abrupt halt, on a day I'd managed to get caught and found myself hanging suspended just above the playground earth, Karen Schneider pulling on my right arm while Paul Mortensen tried to save me from capture, pulling on my left leg. They jerked me back and forth, me facing up, studying the sky -- there was a light cloud cover that noontime -- until Karen dropped my arm, suddenly tired, no longer interested in our clown show. "This is so stupid," she said. "I'm not playing any more." It felt to me like all that tugging, all that pulling me back and forth had stretched my little body until it became long, attenuated, ribbon-like, rippling in the breeze like a pennant. When Karen let go I snapped back to my normal shape, landing in the dirt. She turned sharply and walked off. Paul looked at her, looked at me, then exited in a different direction. And war gave way to sad, boring peace.
School life resumed its normal droning tedium after that, me distracting myself by drifting through crushes on various females. I developed a jones for one of my classmates, a diminutive, button-nosed minx named Carolyn -- a bit of longing that climaxed in an especially vivid dream. I found myself in a dream version of our classroom, other kids around, the school being terrorized by a gunman who lurked outside, out of view. Shots were fired through the windows, broken glass and capsized desks littered the floor. Tension, angst. And then Carolyn took a bullet. And as I knelt crying over her sweet, dead body, I woke up, tears streaming down my face, dismayed to find myself in my waking world and refusing to accept it. I turned over, willing myself back to sleep. And found myself back in the classroom amid chaos and mayhem, Carolyn still alive, the dream replaying itself. Only this time at the crucial moment I threw myself in front of Carolyn, taking the slug meant for her. And as I lay heroically expiring -- sprawled amid the wreckage of the classroom, bleeding profusely, noble like you would not believe -- my dreamgirl hugged my chubby bod, weeping, and I woke up a second time feeling... pretty good about the way things had worked out. I mean, not only had this babe draped herself over my fallen body -- awash in grief, declaring undying love -- but my finer qualities had been showcased in a way I definitely approved of.
At some point during that school year, seating arrangements in our classroom changed, I found myself sitting next to a girl named Sherry. Just neighbors at first, planted at adjoining desks. Time passed, we became acquainted, relations began to loosen up. We entertained each other another through hours of boredom, drawing silly cartoons, passing comical notes back and forth. Until the morning we sat enduring a lesson on electricity and Sherry scribbled out a pun in the margin of her notebook about a three-ring circuit. Right there, sitting next to her, enjoying the joke, studying the goofy smile on her cute face, I realized I was smitten. Knocked upside the head by the Hammer of Love. I grabbed my pen, scrawled "I love you" in my notebook, I think the first time I'd ever expressed that potent phrase to anyone. And to my amazement, when I showed it to her she didn't laugh or turn white or throw up. She exclaimed, "Yeah?", seeming pleased.
Not pleased enough, though. A short while after I showed Sherry those three little words, she hooked up with a boy named Ralph, the two of them became the fourth grade version of an item.
Ralph was also in my class. We knew each other well enough to have hung out a couple of times, to have once played a kind of sex game in his basement. (One afternoon we wound up in his basement, somehow got into acting out a captive/jailer scenario, kind of a good-natured dominant/submissive thing involving pants being lowered. Ralph had a long stick he brandished like a riding crop. "Pull down those pants, son," he'd tell me, pointing the stick at my lower half. "Say, that's a nice specimen you've got there.")
Sharon and Ralph had their coming out at school one day, and though cut to my pudgy quick, I took it with stoic good grace, displaying only good will and friendship to the lucky couple. In my heart of hearts, though, I figured, "And why would she want me anyway? I'm fat and dumb and I sing soprano solos in chorus. *Sob!*"
Over the next few years, Sharon and I no longer shared the same classrooms. She developed into a greaser girl, we ran in completely different social circles, and any evidence that there'd ever been a connection between us evaporated like puddles in a playground. And likewise with Ralph. It always seemed strange to me that people who'd played such prominent parts in my life could become complete strangers, passing me at school with no sign of recognition, without any real falling out apart from simple evolution.
The bottom line during these years was that whatever was going on with me, however I acted, I wanted females in my life. I wanted that unknown something I was sure they could provide -- warmth, comfort, kindness, whatever it was I scoured the neighborhood for during my earlier hippocratic years. My third grade teacher, Miss Vince, turned out to be a source of tremendous kindness, and I became very attached to her. She decided to move out to California at the end of the school year, leaving me more and more distraught as the time of that huge change approached. On the day of her departure, I entertained thoughts of trailing her to the train station, sniffling quietly, hoping my subtle display of brokenheartedness might convince her to stay. In a dramatic reversal, she would drop her bags by the train and extend her arms to me, saying, "I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking -- I'll never leave you again!" My mother, interestingly enough, apparently hated Miss Vince and could have cared less about my grief. She seemed to have some mysterious intense grudge against this woman, and nothing I said in Miss Vince's defense had any effect on it.
There actually was one little girl who seemed attracted to me in more than just a friendly way during all these elementary school years, letting me know she was available by flirting shamelessly at every opportunity. She lived out in the country in upstate New York in the little town of Half Moon, where my parents dragged me every summer from the end of June to the beginning of September. We had two wooded acres on the Hudson River, surrounded by two or three more acres of woods so it seemed pretty remote even though a two-lane highway ran along one edge of the property. One other little boy lived close enough to hang around with -- Jeff Matthews, four years younger than me. Jeff lived up the road in an apartment over the gas station his father ran. In order to get there I had to walk up the highway past Donna Clemens' house. Which meant running into Donna from time to time. For reasons I can't explain, Donna had her sights set on me. Maybe I was the only kid near her age out there. Maybe my spending the rest of the year down near New York City gave me some cachet. I can't say. All I know is any time she saw me she would flirt like mad and it left me absolutely flummoxed. "Hey, Timmy Joe," she would chirp -- that's what the locals called me in Half Moon, Timmy Joe -- "how do I look?" She'd lift the sides of her skirt and twirl slowly around with this goofy come-hither smile on her face. God almighty. Here was a little girl ready to give me all the attention and company I wanted from the girls down on Long Island, and I couldn't take it. I'm not sure if the problem had to do with that old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member, or if it's because her come-to-me-my-darling energy seemed so bizarrely out there. Whichever, the idea of being seen by anyone with Donna fawning over me was too much. (Not that I was any prize, but hey.)
So these late elementary school years were the end of my pre-hormone time -- my pubescent cusp, you might say -- and I drifted through them, falling in and out of crushes on the girls at school. Through all of that falling in and out, though, there were two other females who had a strong, longer-lasting effect on me, two girls who visited me through my household's television.
First came Annette Funicello, my interest in the Mickey Mouse Club expanding in direct proportion to the rate at which she outgrew her Mouseketeers t-shirt. There was simply no getting around it, she had attributes none of the other Mouseketeers possessed and they only grew harder to ignore with the passage of time. Cubbie's drum set became an annoyance, Jiminy Cricket a waste of air time when compared to the spectacle of Annette pausing to inhale during a song. Ultimately, though, her phenomenal wholesomeness became an insurmountable impediment. How, I reasoned, could someone bursting with such an abundance of je ne sais quoi be so outrageously pure? It proved to be an unanswerable question for my tiny hormone-besieged brain, and I found relief in the simplicity of Angela Cartwright's development over the course of "Lost In Space." Angela seemed more normal, more of a very cute everyperson instead of a goddess. She seemed more connected to reality as I experienced it, and her transition from girl to young woman seemed to be in sync with the changes me and my peers were passing through.
When puberty -- real puberty, first-person puberty, in my body -- finally struck, I found I needed more than Annette or Angela could supply. In elementary school, like many of my peers, my basic, primal, pre-hormone sex drive let me to the occasional cheesecake magazine which I, of course, glommed onto with evangelical fervor. In 4th or 5th grade I found a mailing envelope containing three such rags in the trash basket outside our local greasy spoon. My friend Bob was with me, and I remember his eyes stretching wide open with astonishment when I flashed the magazines at him. We sprinted back to my house and hid in the garage, looking at all the unclothed women as they lounged provocatively in black and white. There was one exceedingly-endowed individual called Cupcakes Cassidy, and the spectacle of her chest provoked wonderment as deep as any feelings I'd experienced up to that point in my young life.
My brother Pat joined the Coast Guard during my twelfth year, periodically returning home on leave to get his laundry done and cop some free meals. On those visits, he stayed in his old bedroom, across the hall from mine in the teeny upstairs of our house. When he went out carousing, I, of course, snooped around to see what he'd brought home with him from the service. Which meant as soon as Playboy appeared I was on it like static cling. There it was, big sex, hanging around on my brother's night table, right out in the open in our previously sexless home. (Breasts and hineys spotted in old issues of National Geographic didn't count.) Sex remained an unknown quantity in our house, never mentioned or referred to, and as far as I knew my parents were completely unfamiliar with the concept. So the appearance of the genuine, glossy, airbrushed article was momentous.
I went through that issue and other ones Pat brought home, slogging through the magazine's pretensions to intellect, becoming as familiar with the women as time allowed. Then I made tracings and stored them away for the long periods between Pat's visits when the magazines were absent. The tracings spent their off hours stashed under my mattress.
Coming home after school one afternoon, I made it as far as the kitchen where Mom blocked my way, informing me that she'd found "some pictures" in my room. (After those first few words, I could barely hear her over the big, whooping alarm sirens that had erupted in my head.) "Some pictures," of course, was code for "the pathetic, filthy tracings you had under your mattress," and the implications of the situation were serious. A major moral affront of the kind I'd committed could have easily led to fireworks of a nasty, physical kind. Even though I'd grown too big for my mother to smite, the old man could still punch my ticket if the mood came over him, and an alert, vigilant silence on my part seemed the wisest course. Amazingly, like a gift from a suddenly benevolent God, the ominous atmosphere evaporated and the encounter passed quickly. The subject apparently made my mother so uncomfortable and intimidated that she couldn't manage more than a mumbled sentence about sex being something some people made dirty. I listened respectfully and said yes mom and went upstairs to figure out a safer hiding place. And that was it. It felt like a death sentence had miraculously been commuted to full parole.
I put the next batch of tracings in a little safe I inherited from my brother Terry -- a small, ridiculous structure made from pieces of scrap wood, barely held together by bent, tortured nails driven in during some wild hammering frenzy, obviously built before Terry had gotten the hang of right angles. It had white paint splashed all over it with words painted over that in big sloppy black letters saying, "DANGER! PRIVATE! KEEP OUT! THIS MEANS YOU!" A flimsy lock secured it and for some reason nothing stored there was ever disturbed. I don't know whether Mom couldn't deal with the possibility of another confrontation or whether the idea that material of any sensitivity might actually be in the safe was too laughable to take seriously.
I have to confess here that, despite my quivering fascination with skin magazines, something about them made me uneasy. That could just have been the guilt any Catholic kid might have felt, I don't know. But the very idea of this furtive form of entertainment seemed to contain an intrinsic confusing seediness to me. Are these women just objects to wank off over or are they individuals one might want to connect with in a deeper, warmer way than flesh pounding flesh? In my case, a longing for connection was at least part of it, a desire for the kind of connection that would say I was wanted and loved and had worth. That old looking-to-women-for-completion thing. (And if it happened with a woman who also happened to be a bona fide sexpot that, of course, would be just fine.)
So these photos became a source of real bewilderment. After all, I wasn't connecting with anyone remotely like these women. And God knows, there were no stunning babes lounging around my life, clothed or otherwise. And the discrepancy between this odd, oversexed universe on paper and the odd love-starved world I lived in just pointed up this lack, so I not only felt my normal, lonely melancholia, but I became unbelievably horny and had nowhere to go with it. All my burgeoning pubescent energy got funneled into emotions which then bloated up into full-scale episodes of despair and depression. I was miserable. I'd get hung up on one girl after another, without the courage or know-how or self-confidence to do anything about it. I'd spend days at school mooning over a hopeless infatuation, go to dances on the weekends, watch them look cute and sexy all evening, then go home and sit on my bed rocking and forth moaning their name. It made for a mighty pitiful existence.
The cork popped on my first ejaculation late one night in seventh grade. I surfaced from a deep sleep, bleary and disoriented, with the sense that SOMETHING had just happened, but with no idea at all what. I fumbled around for my bedside light, turned it on, looked around. Everything seemed normal, nothing appeared amiss. Until I noticed an odor. A pungent odor, vaguely reminiscent of the delicate bouquet of liquid bleach. (It had that same kind of piercing quality, that same tang, you know?) When I lifted the bedsheets I was presented with the sight of a gummy white liquid pooled across my stomach, a little of which seemed to be oozing out of my junior partner.
Sex education in any form had been excluded from the family agenda, so I had no information to prepare me for an eye-opener like this. The only precedent I could come up with had to do with a time one of my brothers suffered a serious foot inflammation during my earliest years. I remember watching my mother change the dressing on the foot -- before she wrapped it all up again she squeezed what appeared to my young eyes to be a colossal amount of pus out of the inflamed area. And so it seemed to me years later, as I lay trying to make terrified sense of the albino swampland that had just materialized on my tummy, that I either suffered from some sort of massive physical infection or I'd sprung a leak and was rapidly losing precious bodily fluids.
At school the next day I got the lowdown from a couple of guys, and it felt like I'd been admitted to a secret club. Sex had suddenly become tumescent with meaning, in a direct, first-person way, and the import of it all endowed my life with a whole new dimension of erotic possibility. My friend Bob told me about jerking off in the bathroom, and I remember the expression on his face as he spoke, one I can only describe as disturbingly euphoric. My life -- comparatively innocent and simple up to that point -- had been transformed overnight into something very different, with deep, overwhelming implications.
Sex literally seemed to be just about everywhere I looked. As far as I could tell, everyone had been issued some version of the basic equipment at birth. Every single body I saw bore the adornments of gender, something clothing only seemed to emphasize, regardless of whether it strove to reveal or conceal. And in those years, the way people dressed and presented themselves left little doubt who was who, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Andy Warhohl's crew of nutbags not having muddied the water yet. As far as my hormone-addled friends and I could see, the world stank of sex. Apart from the females at school, it was paraded before us in movies, TV, magazines, billboards. Sex was clearly one of the most basic, universal elements of life and the world never let us forget it.
We also got that a major link existed between sex and love, the other big mystery. Good news as far as I was concerned, since love then provided an honorable, life-redeeming aspect to our obsession with sex, which otherwise threatened to engulf existence in chaos.
But at the same time that the grown-up world tormented us by dangling evidence of sex everywhere, it told us sex was dirty, sordid, bad, and that if we were honest about our untrammeled lust we would (a) catch major shit from adults or (b) burn in hell or (c) catch major shit from adults and then burn in hell. And it wasn't enough to avoid talking about sex or refrain from actually having sex. We were told it was a sin to simply think about sex. Trust me -- TRUST me -- when you are 13 or 14 years old, practically jumping out of your skin with testosterone, the effort it sometimes takes to stop thinking about sex could make your brain swell up and explode.
So sex was this wonderful, God-given commodity that no one was supposed to take part in, much less admire openly -- under pain of suffering eternal, unimaginable torment in Hell -- unless you were married and having sex in missionary position to create more souls to be saved. The only purpose of sex, the sole reason for the existence of this lovely, intimate, deeply pleasurable interaction between two people -- this gift of deep connection -- was to crowd the planet with more humans who were supposed to crowd the planet with more humans. It didn't make much sense to my simple little mind. But those were the rules of the game, and we accepted that and did whatever we had to do to get by no matter how silly or pathetic it was, because most of the time we were nothing but genitals with arms and legs and no brains. We were teenagers, and hormones were in the driver's seat.
I began to hear stories about teenage sexual pursuits, sophisticated pasttimes like circle jerks. I never met anyone who actually admitted to participating in that kind of sordid event, though everyone seemed to know someone else who had. So it was either a myth or no one was foolish enough to confess to aiming Mr. Happy at a cracker with a bunch of other cackling lowlifes -- much less to choking down the polluted saltine, as the declared loser in those deals supposedly did.
It seems strange to me now that, despite all this stimulation, I didn't get into masturbation. I don't know why. It's not like I had anything more important or satisfying to do with my time. I just didn't make the connection. Nocturnal ejaculations, however, became a fact of life and I remember bringing it up at church, in confession. I was always casting about for new confessional material, and this seemed to be just about perfect. And on hearing my disclosure, the priest, instead of waving a self-righteous finger at me, let me off the hook in a show of genuine kindheartedness, telling me something like, "You see, God put a little valve in your body, and any time too much stuff backs up in your system, God opens the valve up and lets some out." Not rooted in much science, but surprisingly well-intentioned. If I had confessed to Father Reilly, a man who didn't seem to enjoy much of anything, I likely would have been sentenced to hundreds of Our Fathers and Hail Marys as penance for my filthy bodily functions.
Around that time, I also began hearing about make-out parties, a pasttime I liked the sound of, and by the time I finally found myself in the middle of some two or three years later, the appeal became even clearer and I actually took part in a fairly functional way. I didn't push it very far, attempting only some well-mannered, moderately heated-up kissing. Pretty demure for those affairs. I'm not sure what the story was with me, whether it was fear of getting slapped down or terminal shyness or what, but it made me feel frustrated and disgusted with myself. Because if my cohort didn't mind smooching until our lips were bruised and swollen, why would she mind if I copped a feel? Just a little teensy feel so I could see for myself what a breast felt like or even maybe add some visuals and get a peek at a real, honest-to-god breast and nipple combo. She might even have liked it, who knows -- stranger things have happened. And even knowing she might be into it, I still couldn't cross the line. I considered myself to be a spineless jellyfish for not having the nerve to DO something about it. On the other hand, I was so grateful there were women who actually wanted to do something with me, no matter how piddling on the cosmic scale, that I tried not to fuss too much about the whole issue.
I attempted my first date near the end of seventh grade, asking a young woman I knew to go skating. She said yes, an answer that led to a good 30 seconds of elation before I realized I'd just put myself into a position where I'd have to attempt charm and wit with a female for at least two whole hours.
My mother drove us to the skating rink. Pam (my date) sat in the front seat with Mom while I sat in the back. We talked a little, but mostly I watched the back of her head and looked around at the suburban scenery until we got to the skating rink. Then I had to figure out what to do for the time we were by ourselves. It turned out to be tough going, and a couple of times I simply quit trying to come up with conversation and took off ahead of her to skate on my own. I remember looking back as I rounded one end of the rink, spotting my date at the other end trudging along on her skates, clearly feeling as uncomfortable and alone as me. Not a huge success, that first foray into dating.
After that, things remained quiet on the intergender front until midway through eighth grade when a girl began making eyes at me every time she passed me at school. She was a hell of a young woman, wrapped in a tight skirt and a tight blouse, sporting heavy eye make-up and hair big enough to have been inflated with compressed air. Her name, I found out, was Lucille. I had to admit she was sexy in her own toughass, down-and-dirty way, and I couldn't figure out why she had set her sights on me. I'd lost my excess poundage by then but remained homely, unmuscular, with few friends and little confidence. I found her attention mystifying and a little intriguing, though not intriguing enough to investigate with any seriousness. Way too intimidating. I knew that whatever I'd have to wade through to get to a relationship (which I couldn't picture) or even just some making-out (which I could picture) would completely overshadow any payoff.
Lucille had a go-between, a tall, chubby friend nicknamed Pregnant who tried to prime the pump, assuring me every chance she got how much Lucille liked me. And eventually, Lucille and I got together to talk, which turned out to be the extent of the affair. I had no desire or drive to attempt anything more. And Lucille became disappointed. Next time I ran into Pregnant, she shoved me up against a wall. "You be good to Lucille!" she warned me, after which I avoided them both so completely that they finally gave up and left me alone.
Well. A year later, on a Saturday evening in ninth grade, something at last clicked when I dialed a wrong number. A voice answered, female and somewhere around my age. A nice voice. And instead of getting off the phone I managed to initiate conversation. She turned out to be a local girl named Karen. She was in eighth grade, her parents were out for the night, and before I knew it I had a date. My mother drove me over and dropped me off, obviously not picking up on the true vibe of the occasion.
When I arrived, we took a few tentative minutes to make first contact -- very polite, very cautious -- after which we threw ourselves together and engaged in a spirited bout of mouth melding that hit the three-hour mark before either of us thought about pausing for breath, food, drink or brimming bladders. When my mother picked me up I could barely talk, much less walk, and I staggered out to the car in an altered state. I'd broken the make-out barrier -- FINALLY! -- and there'd been nothing to it, nothing at all. It proved to be easy and natural, it had fallen together as if written in the stars, and best of all, a re-match had been scheduled for the following Saturday night.
Though Karen and I shared some common ground -- neither were pin-up candidates, both were foaming with hormones and curiosity -- in many ways we were from very different social strata. I came from North Merrick, right in the middle of the middle class; she was from South Merrick, where money resided. I lived in a little suburban cracker box; she lived in a sprawling house about the size of LaGuardia Airport. My first real adventure with a female and I'd managed to latch on to someone from money. Pretty bitchen, thought I.
When I showed up the next Saturday evening, we again started off with foreplay -- some chat, she showed me some new shoes -- before hurling ourselves together for the main event. We whiled away the evening on the rug in her living room until we both had our fill of that kind of exploration. After which I went home and neither of us attempted any further contact. I'm not sure what happened there. Far as I can remember, there were no problems, no unpleasant moments, no ill will. Maybe after the first blast of activity had passed, we found we simply didn't have enough in common to sustain a relationship. Or maybe neither of us had the stamina for further interaction. Who knows?
High school. My social life burst into sudden activity, mostly due to getting into choir, a serious, high-quality, time-intensive deal in our school. Between hours of daily rehearsal and extensive off-hours fraternizing, we choir types were in each other's company to the point that it almost became a kind of social inbreeding, a little universe all our own.
And in fact it turned out to be a social scene resembling an underage Peyton Place: big parties, booze and sex, romances coming and going, lots of dramatic undercurrents eddying around beneath it all. Fun, in a sordid way. By spring of that school year a pattern had settled into place wherein parties appeared almost instantly if parents left for an evening or a weekend. Adults' exits created a vacuum that our bacchanalias immediately filled, pouring into the house with an audible roar, as if the main tent of the Ringling Brothers Circus were being set up in the living room.
As I navigated this large, noisy crowd I found myself immersed in, I began carving out the niche I would occupy for the next three years. And as an element of that, my early-adult persona began taking form. Not a bad persona, really, as personas go. Properly melodramatic with a tinge of the tragic, as smart, arty, moody, sensitive guys so often are. Kind of a dull persona in some ways, actually, now that I think about it. Kind of a relentless, wearing melodrama to it -- a shroudlike air of I'm young, I'm bright, I'm suffering. That apparently became the angle I exploited to get attention. A good guy, a good listener, sensitive as all get-out, talented even, but sad, done wrong by life. Ah, well. Best I could do at the time, I guess.
During this exciting, depressive time, flush with new people and new experiences, I managed to stumble my way into a romantic triangle -- a suitably tragic, bittersweet way to pass my first year of high school. The romance actually involved the other two points of the triangle, R. and V., in 12th grade and 11th grade respectively. My tenth-grade status pretty much relegated me to the role of camp follower. And what could I realistically expect? As kind as R. was, no way would she opt for a romance with me, a mooning, self-sorry (though bright and witty) 16-year-old over a sharp, socially adept 17-year-old. And, truthfully, it sucked.
So the year dragged by. If any women wanted me, I remained so wrapped up in myself that I didn't see it. And if I had seen it, I probably wouldn't have known what to do with it. But I was fairly popular and went to many parties, which passed the time in messy, high-spirited fashion. I even hosted one or two on the rare evenings that my parents went out. That spring, on one of those occasions, I had a few people over -- just a small soirée, nothing grand or pretentious -- and R. showed up, a couple of sheets to the wind. Single, for some reason. I don't know what had passed between her and V., but whatever happened, she'd become a woman on her own for a while, and later in the evening when she and I wound up on the floor in the dining room, I finally leaned over and kissed her. And found myself in contact with a pair of mighty active lips. More active than I'd been expecting. So active that the surprise traveled around my nervous system like roman candles. And instead of staying there, letting it happen, I jumped up in agitated excitement and tried to drag her into the bedroom. My intent, I swear, was fairly innocent. (No, really.) No matter how much I might have wanted to place my hands on strategic locations, I wouldn't have had the nerve to try. I just wanted more lip wrestling, only in a more comfortable, more private spot. R., tipsy as she was, had no interest in relocating and ignored my attempts at persuasion. And the moment passed. Some other people came into the room and I knew I'd let a sweet, exhilarating happening sweep right on by. Live and learn, I guess.
That summer V. and R. were together a great deal before she headed off to college, and over the course of those weeks, V. began adopting a man-of-the-world attitude. He spoke sagely one time about how ordinary it gets to see your womanfriend naked. I listened to this, and one part of me felt Well, no shit, you fatuous, smug blahblahblah, while another, much smarter part of me paid attention, because V. spoke, after all, from experience, having spent so much time with this woman. When, I wondered, when do I get to experience this? When is my turn gonna come?
My turn came in eleventh grade. When it arrived, it showed up in the form of a choir girl called Champ.
On the face of it, one would have thought Champ an unlikely candidate. Straight, sort of prim, not very arty. A jockish type, in fact, who participated in the school kickline and could be seen at football games doing big leg maneuvers with the rest of kickline babes. Apart from choir, she moved in entirely different circles from mine, and in choir kept a low enough profile that it never occurred to me I might find myself in a relationship with this particular woman.
The deal was done one evening in the first week of December when I accepted the offer of a post-choir-rehearsal ride home, from Champ and her mother. Darkness had fallen, early winter stars shone above us as we got into the car. For some reason, Mother Champ stopped briefly at church on the way home, where she managed to get the car hung up on a patch of ice in the parking lot. The wheels spun -- whining, smoking, whining, smoking -- and no matter how much Mother Champ gunned the engine, it made no difference. Until, finally, I got out to push. They had a Chrysler the size of a sperm whale and I didn't think my little body would have much effect, but I noticed no one else made a move to help me. To my surprise, with my, er, massive brawn behind it the car actually lurched forward. When it did, I lost my footing and grabbed at the rear bumper, slicing a finger open. Blood flowed in surprising abundance -- my blood, I noted in dismay -- but the Champ family had a little glove compartment first-aid kit, and after they'd bandaged me up to within an inch of my miserable life, I found myself in the back seat with Champ's hands wrapped around mine.
And there you have it. Instant relationship. Very neat, very sudden. So neat and sudden, in fact, that I wondered if I should be concerned. I wondered about that for a good five or ten seconds until I absorbed the sensation of hands holding mine, of someone else's knee under my hands. Then I figured NO PROBLEM HERE. I was ready to be part of a couple. I was ready to be wanted by someone. And I was ready for a great deal of sex with someone who wanted a great deal of sex with me.
So we're going out a few weeks -- we're really dating, it's totally legit -- and one Friday night we're up in my room where the conversation turns to the harrowing subject of sex, our inaugural foray into that territory. Slow, halting, nervous going at first. And then Champ surprised me. Shyly, her voice quiet, she told me she'd always wanted to know what it would feel like to have a breast kissed. And she unbuttoned her blouse, baring her right breast. I remember watching her as she undid the buttons, sitting in the light of my bedside lamp. Her lips settled into a small smile, and I thought about how different the world suddenly felt, different enough that it seemed strange things still looked the same. (A few things, of course, were looking quite a bit better.) The sight and feel of a real, live breast was awesome, miraculous, and the part of the memory that remains clearest to me is how kindly we treated each other. It was so tender, not at all furtive or manipulative, at least between us. What our parents might think about it was another matter, and in relation to that it felt furtive as hell.
So we were out of the starting gate and into a sexual relationship, and we partied like the apocalypse was nigh. Both Champ's parents worked, and during the week, if we got out of school early enough, we'd go over to her place and make love, half-speechless from sexual hypertension and the fear of someone walking in on us. I found the thought of going into a pharmacy to get condoms unbelievably intimidating -- and in those pre-AIDS, pre-herpes days, neither of us goofballs saw any real need for concern -- so our contraceptive was the old pre-climax pullout/stomach splash, and trying to time that right made us even jumpier. We were constantly on and off the couch from paranoia and raw nerves.
Friday evenings were sometimes spent in my bedroom, this while my parents watched TV in the living room directly beneath. Risky, yes. Indiscrete, in poor taste, sure. We were on a mission, though, and we followed our prime directive.
And our activity did not always go smoothly. Champ and I were camped out in my bedroom one Saturday afternoon, burning calories, when we were interrupted by the sound of someone ascending the stairs from down below. My body responded to those footsteps as if struck by lightning, flying out of bed and into clothes to appear at the top of the stairs just in time to block my mother, who stood just below the top landing, her arms full of sheets. "Mom," I warned, "whatever you do, don't go in that room." She stared up at me, unnerved, entirely unprepared for the situation. My mother peered out at me from confused eyes, and that moment stands in my memory as a sad snapshot, showing her vulnerable in a way I rarely saw.
Of course my parents knew what the gig was, but nothing was said until years later when my mother brought it up in a completely unrelated argument. "What about you and Champ up in your bedroom?" she blurted out. "Well," I answered, "I had to learn somewhere, didn't I?" A hard question to answer with much dignity.
Regardless of our frequent aerobic activity, Champ was actually a fairly prudish and timid person in many ways -- conventional, not very wild. As a consequence of becoming part of my social milieu, she found herself in many events thrown by our social circle that she otherwise might not have volunteered for. We were, for instance, in attendance one evening at a small affair thrown by a choir friend named Boom Boom on a night his parents were out.
Boom lived around the corner from the fire house and had a thing for firefighting. He kept a radio on the desk in his bedroom which picked up the fire department frequencies, and when the siren at the fire house went off Boom was on that radio like a wet t-shirt on a 38E.
On this particular evening, Champ and I had locked ourselves into Boom's bedroom. Clothing littered the floor and we were approaching teenage satori when the fire siren started up. Within seconds, Boom is hammering on the bedroom door, demanding to get to the radio. Champ's frantic at being caught indelicato and we're trying to get decent. Clothes are flying, everyone's yelling, Boom's trying to push the door open, I'm jammed against it keeping it shut, and when he finally fell into the room I was ready to get him in a headlock and puncture his eardrums. I'm not sure Champ ever really recovered from occasions like this.
As dynamic as our sexual relationship may have been, our emotional relationship was in sad shape. We pretty much had what most people our age wanted: company on Friday night, sexual whoopee, someone to snuggle with, a companion for parties. But when it came to the mechanics of conducting a relationship, we were pretty much clueless. Neither of us came from a background rich in healthy role models. And we were very different people -- one a straight, letter-sweater jockette unfamiliar with Led Zeppelin, whose parents used the term "Jew" as a slur; the other, an aspiring hipster who read the Village Voice, mainlined rock and roll and thought he was on the enlightened cutting edge of western civilization. Not a lot of material to work with once the glory of teenage sex faded. And indeed, in short order the fun gave way to a regular routine of her crying and me standing by, silent, arms folded, hating us both. Over time, we became a regular feature in the hall down by the choir room acting out the same basic scene: Champ sniffling quietly, me nearby saying nothing. I cashed in on that with friends, tacitly allowing the perception of Champ as the simple, over-emotional clinging vine and me the moody, sensitive, long-suffering arty type who deserved better.
At the end of the school year she took me to the senior prom -- pretty slick, I secretly thought, being only a junior -- and once the school year finished up I bolted. The final scene played out in properly melodramatic style: Champ sitting on the stairs by her front door crying, me stalking out in silent, exasperated self-righteousness. I had no idea what I was doing. I thrashed stupidly about without the experience or vocabulary to handle myself in a way that might have been kinder, more loving, less operatic.
There were lessons to be learned here, of course, but I was too pretentiously preoccupied to trouble myself with them.
I dated different women through the following autumn and winter, searching for something enduring and meaningful, in more and more despair as nothing came together. Until an evening in early March.
I'd gone to school with a friend that night to see a faculty production of "Guys and Dolls," one of those strange events where teachers put themselves on display for a couple of hours while an auditorium full of students behaves badly. At school, we threaded our way through the crowd into the auditorium, and when we arrived at our seats we found them already occupied. By girls! Live high school girls, sitting in our seats! I looked at the young woman occupying my place. She looked over at me. And a great wave of warmth swept through my body.
My friend and I sat in the next row back where the mystery woman and I could check each other out -- and we did, sneaking stealthy glances back and forth. To my hungry eyes, she was a vision: small, a notch or two this side of petite, with an angelic face framed by long, black hair. When the show ended and I rose to leave, she aimed a smile at me that sent me out into the night in a cold sweat. It seemed like a real possibility I'd just been given the green light, which meant, I realized with genuine fear, that I had to figure out what to do in response. Why, I wondered, did a creature that luminous have any interest in me? And did I have the intestinal fortitude to investigate?
For the next few days I walked around in my own dazed little world, tracking down as much information as I could scrape together about this person and girding myself for action. Someone told me her name was Colette and I managed to find her phone number. Once I had that, asking her out could no longer be avoided. At home that evening, I positioned my carcass by the phone, hyperventilating. A good ten or fifteen minutes convulsive minutes passed before I was able to dial the number without slamming the phone down in panic. And before I could slam the phone down yet again, Colette picked up at the other end. When she heard my dry-mouthed hello she answered as if she'd been waiting for me to call. She felt so natural and matter-of-fact, she seemed so kind and familiar and glad I'd called that my fear evaporated and conversation proved effortless. In my heart, gratitude blended with attraction and I drifted down into the deep, warm waters of love.
We quickly became an item, and people we knew seemed to consider us an item immediately, as if someone had entered us into the social register. A few of the guys threw me a birthday party several days after my first date with Colette, and when I stumbled into the festivities there she sat, already absorbed and accepted by my social group. There was a mysterious, dreamlike feel to the quickness of it.
From that point on, more and more of my free time was spent at Colette's where we talked and listened to music or played billiards in her basement. I remember watching her walk around the pool table, preparing for a shot, my studying her movements and her face, rapt with a sort of goofy, stuporous devotion. We spent time with her family, went to movies, made trips to New York City. Things moved along.
And we began to investigate sex, a slow, languid process that advanced in tiny increments. I wanted to make sure this woman didn't feel forced into anything. Most of my sexual feelings for her were a product of my emotions, so intimacy had way more priority than scoring. I did, however, want to share physical intimacy with her eventually, in only the most reverent way. I wanted to bring her pleasure and see it in her face. I wanted to be special to her. And of course I wanted to enjoy the festivities myself. So, slowly, carefully, I began to push the envelope just a tad.
A few weeks in we came up against the question of petting, and one afternoon after school I drove her down to Jones Beach for a talk. We sat out in the dunes where I tried to explain that my wanting her physically arose from emotional attraction, that it was loving and respectful and I wasn't a swine. I told her I would never push her to do anything she didn't want, and I meant it. My sincerity amazed me, even unnerved me a bit. Getting vulnerable in that way, trying to put together words to state things I'd never stated before, felt like a sizeable risk. And she listened, and decided to take some small risks of her own.
During this amazing time, while I coasted further and further into bliss and existence became increasingly oriented around my main squeeze, other parts of my life experienced a drop in priority. Most notably, friends began to occupy a more marginal niche than they had before, and I guess I began to slight them in inadvertent ways. I say "I guess" because I don't remember. I made no conscious choices to ignore anyone, but my romance had a magnetic pull on me and there didn't seem to be much time for other things.
I may have been oblivious but my friends weren't, and as time went on their tolerance for my vanishing act grew more brittle, less patient. Until two or three of the guys confronted me about it down the by the choir room one morning. Not a placid event. Unplacid, in fact. They were angry, I felt ambushed, and instead of handling it diplomatically, instead of hearing their words as those of friends feeling abandoned, I think I responded by attacking back. Whatever I said only made them angrier, and the situation came to a head when they abruptly severed ties with me, leaving me ostracized. And stunned. The trouble seemed to rise up so suddenly, though it had probably been building for weeks. I can't say for sure. I only know I was suddenly cut off from my social network at a time when, relationshipwise, I was tooling around in new territory without a road map and could have used some help.
But I didn't ask for help. I had no idea I was flailing around, so I flailed even more, pouring all my energy and interest in Colette's direction. And why not? Now that I'd found the grand relationship of my life, I intended to focus on it completely, letting everything else fall away if I had to.
Now. A little background on this period of my life.
I had begun smoking dope in January or February of that year, and throughout this operatic time I indulged in far too much weed. So my mind, which in those years could never have listed clarity as one of its prime assets, was far from its clearest. After my friends dumped me, I fell in with some other burgeoning potheads, and marijuana assumed a larger and larger role in daily life.
Colette had never tried getting high, and I never brought her into direct contact with the pharmaceutical side of my life. She knew what I was doing, though, and we talked about it. The stories I told her featured lots of laughter and madcap, red-eyed hijinks, because that was how it all seemed in the flush of its first days. Good, clean, knee-slapping counterculture fun, back when an ounce cost $10 and the words "just say no" hadn't yet been strung together. Over time, because of all my merry drug tales, Colette became intrigued. And in June, three months after our first date and shortly after my fall from grace with the rest of my life, she decided she wanted to try the wacky tobaccy for herself. Something about that decision made me uneasy, but not enough to dissuade her. And one evening around the beginning of finals week we got together to do the deed.
We sat together in my bedroom, holding hands, armed with a joint, and as we sparked the bone and passed it back and forth, Colette's eyes grew dreamy and distant. There I was, it occurred to me, a high school meathead fortunate enough to have stumbled into a lovely romance with an adorable young woman. Barely three months into that God-sent relationship and already I found myself dragging her down with me to hell or worse.
It might have been nascent guilt, it might have been the pot, it might have been simple love, but as I sat there watching this very innocent and open woman absorb this new experience, I realized that I cherished her. And I found myself seized with lovesickness and protective feelings. I leaned over and put my arms around her, my heart full with emotion. And after a while, affection segued into a kiss, which further segued into full-scale, all-out tonsil hockey. It was, I discovered, like trying to make love to someone busy reciting baseball statistics. She looked around and babbled, completely stoned and abstracted as I climbed all over her. But I was shitfaced, smitten and sexually aroused -- I didn't care.
She shifted into a kind of free-association blather, her monologue veering from one thing to another, and at some point, I think during a digression about her gym teacher, I tried to slide my hand into her pants. Manual contact in that area had never been sanctioned before, at least not beneath her clothing, and she instantly snapped out of her stoned state to block my entry.
We struggled briefly until it became clear she would not yield, and I pulled away, feeling the sting of the big NO, furious that after months of giving the best of myself, the most patient and unconditional love I'd ever offered anyone, my attempt to touch her intimately had been swatted down. Of course, she had the right to set her own limits. But I was laboring under the serious handicap of drug-induced brain shrinkage and had momentarily forgotten about things like her rightful part in the whole deal.
Dim and nearly blind from frustration and pot, I felt anger surge up in me, exploding in a brief spasm as I pounded the bed and yelled, roaring out two or three furious words. It might even have been the same word, a hurt, enraged, "WHY? WHY?" And then I got a grip and choked off the outburst. It was all so unexpected, it felt so explosive and violent that we just sat for a moment, gaping at each other, stunned at the sudden left-hand turn the evening had taken. The moment seemed to stretch on and on, hanging in the air between us, the shouted words vibrating like a tuning fork. And then it broke and I heard her tell me to drive her home.
I tried to get her to stay, apologizing desperately from guilt and the fear of abandonment. No good. The ride to her house passed silently, me beside myself with dread and remorse.
I next saw Colette at school when I peeked into a classroom where she sat taking a final exam. She stared down at the test, her features creased into a dark, intense frown, an expression unlike anything I'd ever seen on her face, and I felt sure it had nothing to do with the test material. Afterwards, she met me in the hallway and asked me to take her home. I reined in my emotions during the drive, speaking quietly, watching Colette to see which way the wind was blowing.
At her house, I followed her into the living room where she turned to face me. She said she'd told her mother about what had happened. She said she'd thought about everything and had decided to break the relationship off. She returned a couple of things I'd given her, then said goodbye. Brief and to the point, no wasted words, no ear for my stammering attempts to talk about it. Her mother issued a terse goodbye as I stumbled past the kitchen to the front door and left. Out front, Colette's sister told me that if she'd realized what was going to happen she would have warned me. I barely heard her. I couldn't feel anything and for the first time that I remember there were no thoughts going through my head. I was filled with the blankness of terror and shock. And as I drove away, I saw an entire summer looming out ahead, empty of all the people who'd meant the most to me.
So what do you do in a situation like this? Shrug it off like a real man, tell yourself there are plenty of fish in the sea and carry on, chin up, chest out? Or do you maybe follow the example of Scarlett O'Hara and go charging out into the sunset gushing hopeful platitudes as the soundtrack music swells? No, you don't. You don't do either of those. You shake and moan and curl up into fetal position. You cry if you can. You sink into a miserable stupor and gobble down drugs and booze. (Well, at least that's what I did.)
Of course I wasn't going to inform my parents of what had happened. Personal matters like that were not suitable for discussion. Instead I withdrew, expressing myself in sharp, sullen behavior that drove them crazy. My mother eventually took my car keys away in reprisal, not realizing she had a wretched, heart-broken, near-psychotic on her hands. Her action supplied me with a focal point for my pent-up angst, and I literally hounded her about the keys for the next 24 hours, tireless, relentless, like a pint-size Terminator. At one point, she went out to the car to try to get away for a while and I stood in the driveway so she couldn't back the car out of the garage, finally forcing my father to intervene. Purple-faced, swollen with anger, he burst out of the house, grabbing me by my ears and swinging me over to the grass at the side of the driveway.
Love. It's just one big, nutty kick in the pants.
What would the world be like, I wonder, if parents prepared their children for intimacy a little more thoroughly? In my case, maybe I would have made some better decisions. Maybe I would have wound up in some relationships that were easier on the constitution -- a little less interesting perhaps, a little less colorful, but probably more manageable. Maybe I wouldn't have driven my life into the ground quite as thoroughly.
It took me a while to recover from my first brush with passionate love. For years after that I found myself lapsing into certain old behavior patterns, especially the one about losing myself in a relationship while the rest of my life goes its own way without me. At times like those, I wondered if I ever actually got over that first love.
Now, years later, I tell myself I've smartened up. I tell myself I've gotten a pretty firm grip on the basics. And for the most part I think I have.
For the most part.
© 1996, 2009 by runswithscissors