First, in the late ‘70s, when I was about 7 years old, my mother presented me with a picture book called How Babies Are Made. One section of the book showed paper cut-outs of cocker spaniels frolicking in a field of dandelions. Suddenly, one dog was on top of the other dog, and then both dogs looked traumatized. The final section of the book showed a white man in bed, lying on top of a white woman who had her eyes closed, and they both just looked like they were sleeping.
Then I accidentally found some of my dad’s Playboy and Penthouse magazines. They were stashed in between issues of Art In America.
“Why do you have these?” I asked.
“They have good articles,” he told me. (He actually used that line.) Neither one of us ever mentioned it again.
From then on, whenever my dad wasn’t around, I’d go back for more. Under the covers with a flashlight, way past bedtime, I would press my face close to the pages, examining positions and facial expressions, just trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. When I was left to my own devices, which was often, I’d pour over stolen issues of Penthouse, watch Cinemax After Dark, and read Forever by Judy Blume.
By then I was a chronic masturbator. I was pretty advanced in the art of self-pleasure. I guess the term self-pleasure is slightly misleading because, technically, I had partners. I was humping my stuffed animals like the world was on fire. I didn’t hump just any stuffed animal. I saved all of my love for the cows. They were butterscotch yellow with white felt ears, and I had three of them, and they were all called My Cow. I humped them so hard and with such passion night after night that their bodies were completely deformed. They looked more and more like camels by the end of each session. I mounted a cow at bedtime so often, it was inevitable that my mother would peek in my room to check on me one night, only to find me with a cow between my legs. I never would have known that I’d been caught in the act had she not made fun of me for it one day. I’ll save the details of that cruel moment for my mental health professional, but the point is: it fucked me up. I didn’t stop getting off on my cows because when you’ve got a good thing going you can’t just walk away, but I learned that these were things you didn’t talk about, and maybe weren’t supposed to do in the first place.
I went to Pierce Elementary School in a suburb of Massachusetts where Sex Ed started in sixth grade, offering ‘70s film strips, ample use of the overhead projector, and a movie about wet dreams and hard-ons called Am I Normal? Since I was fairly certain that I’d never had a wet dream or a hard-on, I was, again, left with more questions than answers. That same year we had a school sanctioned weekend-long hiking trip with the sixth graders from the nearby Franklin Elementary School in an effort to prepare us for the fall when we would merge into junior high school as seventh graders. Though we were all the same age, the Franklin girls were different. They had tight fuzzy sweaters and painted-on jeans. They wore bright purple eyeliner and sticky pink frosted lipstick. They carried purses. We had braces and backpacks. We used chapstick. We had no idea that you could look like that at our age. We were only eleven.
So during that camping trip, we were far less concerned with environmental education than we were with which Franklin girl was going out with which Franklin boy, and who had done what with whom “in the bushes” after lights-out. I, for one, could not even imagine what the hell went on in the bushes. Like, literally? In the bushes? We learned about menstrual cycles and sperm in Sex Ed. I vaguely learned how some things worked, but I didn’t get how you actually did stuff. I realized that I didn’t even understand what you were supposed to do with a boy’s tongue in your mouth. This suddenly seemed like really important information.
The Monday after that hormone-fueled hiking trip, all of the girls in my class showed up wearing bright purple eyeliner and pink frosted lipstick, and someone had written ANGELA LOVES STEVE on the wall in the girls’ bathroom and Angela and Steve didn’t even go to our school; they went Franklin. At first, we made fun of them. We scoffed and rolled our eyes and called them sluts behind their backs. Secretly, we wanted to be Franklin girls. We wanted to be sluts, too.
The remainder of our sixth grade year became a feverish frenzy of boy-girl parties centered on endless rounds of Spin The Bottle. I would watch in awe and embarrassment while my peers made out right in front of everyone. I never made it past the first round in Spin The Bottle, managing to avoid having to get or give anything more than a peck on the lips, which was fortunate. The idea that I could do it wrong, and be laughed at and rejected, was paralyzing. I’d heard about one classmate who was nearly laughed right out of the cafeteria when she admitted she thought that a blowjob was when you “blow on a guy’s dick,” which was totally what I thought it was, too. I mean, if that’s not what it is, let’s call it something else so that we all know what we’re talking about.
Everything around me had suddenly changed and all of my friends were doing things that I hadn’t yet figured out. Sure, I’d practiced romantically making out with my pillow, but that wasn’t real and pillows don’t actually have live faces that french you back. I so wished I was different. Which is to say, I wanted to be like everybody else. I felt anxious, envious, and full of secrets. I spent all of my energy trying to hide that fact that I was a prude when, on the inside, I felt like a perverted, Penthouse obsessed cow-fucker.
Things got worse in seventh grade. The good news was that I had my first boyfriend. Chase was a curly haired strawberry-blond in a navy Barracuda jacket with the sleeves perpetually shoved up to the elbows. He was the only white kid in junior high who knew how to Pop & Lock. Everything was great except for the fact that all I ever let Chase do was put his arm around me when we walked home from school. I was trying to pretend that I wasn’t a prude, but everyone knew it. This became clear to me one day in that dreaded cafeteria. I was sitting next to Chase and across from Pete Hill, and Pete Hill dared Chase to kiss me. I panicked for a good long moment before I leaned in close to Chase with the side of my face, so that he could kiss me on the cheek. In that moment, I could tell by the look on Pete Hill’s smug, self-satisfied face that we had just confirmed all of his suspicions.
“Why are you such a prude?” he asked me in disgust.
I said the only thing I could think of in that moment. “I’m not a prude,” I replied, “I’m just not a slut.” That was basically just a line I’d heard in one of those Sex Ed films in sixth grade. It was not helpful.
Pete looked at Chase, smirked, and rolled his eyes. Chase didn’t say anything. He didn’t bother coming to my defense. Even though he was sweet, and I knew he really liked me, the reality was he was a horny about-to-be-thirteen-year-old boy who’d seen Porky’s and Private Lessons, and who wore really tight grey Corduroys, and just wanted a normally developed girlfriend who would put her hand there and just touch it, just for one second. At the end of the day, I couldn’t blame him.
It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I even made out with a boy, which was late by all peer standards. I went with my best friend and her boyfriend over to my boyfriend Mark’s house when his parents were out. We went down to the basement and curled up under a quilt on a brown leather sofa. My first real kiss was a sloppy, adolescent, tongue-wrestling marathon. It was awesome. I didn’t do it wrong. I did it right. We kind of went to third base. He felt me up under my shirt and over my jeans. I put my hand on his crotch, over his pants, but then I took it away because it was weird and it felt like a hot hamster, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
But this was a big deal. A milestone. I thought, Maybe I’ve finally made it over to the other side. Still, that night, my best friend went further with her boyfriend than I would go with anyone for a while. When I think of that day, I think how fortunate it was that no matter what she did–or didn’t do–there was no one around who would make fun of her.