I wasn’t the sort of kid who told the other children where babies came from. Those messengers were most often the kind of pale, sneering boys who loitered in the back of the second grade classroom with a crusty ring of snot dried around their nostrils. These were the boys who licked their lips till they chapped, and lifted the lids of their desks when the teacher wasn’t looking just long enough for you to glimpse their father’s heisted Perfect 10 magazine.
As a child I was a baseball player, a tree-climber, the last blue-lipped kid to crawl out of the pond at dusk. It was not that I did not also covet the frilly, mesmeric trappings of girlishness; I doggedly wore down my mother’s opposition to Barbie dolls and their cripplingly tiny feet, and she let me keep the ones gifted by less enlightened relations. I was not one of those tomboys who didn’t realize she was a girl until she got her first period, or noticed that her bathing suit was different from her brother’s. There was simply never any mistaking myself for the kind of girl for whom ruffled socks and coddling was appropriate. I was strong and brown and fell down a lot, not because I was frail; but because I moved through life with a force not always containable, a haphazard need to get to someplace just beyond where I was. Nicknamed “Crash” by my parents, by the time I was ten I was falling down the stairs that led to my attic bedroom on a daily basis, and was perpetually pocked with bruises from banging into the edge of cabinets, doorways, railings, tables, and bookcases. I once suffered a lump on my forehead that lasted for days after walking into a light-switch.
My kindergarten class photo features me in the front row. A gift from my grandmother (a woman with native expertise in the art of all things feminine), I am wearing a pink sweater-skirt with rows of yellow ducks and a matching top. My hair is long and shiny with pink barrettes, and the smile on my face belies the pleasure I remember feeling at my girliness that day. I would have gotten away with it, at least in retrospect, had I not been in the front row. The image is perfect, until you travel below the hem of my skirt, where my sturdy legs are encrusted with fresh scabs, and anchored by a pair of dilapidated sneakers. It was not often that I attempted this disguise, and the feeling was never lost that it was a futile task to obscure my unkempt underneath.
It wasn’t the implication of sex that made me nervous in dresses. My parents sat me down the first time I asked, around the age of four or five, and told me exactly where babies came from. They drew pictures and gave proper names. There was no element of shock or shame in this information; it simply was, exciting in the way of moths in chrysalis, whose cottony sacks clung to the trees in our yard. In my house we peed with the bathroom door open, and I knew what everyone in my family looked like naked. Bodies were curious, mesmerizing, but the only one I ever remember embarrassing me was my own.
Jessie was my first best friend. When I was five, my family moved to Cape Cod to be closer to the maritime base where my father, a sea captain, shipped out from. We lived on a dirt road with a farm at the end, a stone’s throw from Otis Air Force Base, so that the apocalyptic rumble and whoosh of jets flying overhead was a common disruption. Chatting in backyards, we would pause and stare into each other’s faces for whole minutes while engine thunder filled the air, waiting to pick up our words like a dropped laundry line. Jessie’s family lived a few houses down. Blond and impish, she and her brother Ben were the same ages as my younger brother and me. Our friendships flourished accordingly. Her parents were a concrete foundation layer and a housewife, and I don’t believe I ever saw either of them without a sweating glass of orange juice in their hand.
“They’re called screwdrivers,” my parents informed me. “It’s not just orange juice in their glasses, and that’s why you come home before dark.”
“You are not there,” I pointed out. “You don’t see. I know what orange juice looks like.”
I thought that I knew what a lot of things were like. Bed sheets were worn soft and flannel, toiletries came in bulk gallon bottles from the health food co-op and were under the sink, and nicknames were Crash, Boo, and sometimes Punkin. I had the confidence we do during the period of childhood grace when everything we know is taken for granted as the way of everything in the world, before we have some basis for comparison, and what we have becomes forever not good enough. I had never seen cable television, or tasted snack foods with refined sugar until I went to Jessie’s house. While I gulped in awe and desire, my parents exchanged looks that I now recognize as some combination of pity and dismay. They also shared the wordless phew of two working-class kids from Jersey who grew into an educated, white-collar liberalism that allowed their own children to be spared the perils of meeting Daddy at the bar after school enough times to name “Lady in Red” as a favorite song, as Jessie did.
Jessie’s daddy called her Kitten (my request for the same courtesy was met with laughter), and her whole family used words like ca-ca, an all-inclusive term not only meaning shit, but any kind of nasty substance that might get stuck to you, smell bad, or induce a flinch with its given name. My family’s comparative lack of flourish (poop meant only poop, never mind its grievous onomatopoeia) struck me as both embarrassing and dull. On Christmas afternoon, when she stopped over for cookies, my brother and I touted how not only the cookies we had left with a note for Santa had been eaten, but also the carrots we’d left for the reindeer.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Santa ate all our cookies too, and he had a beer.”
Like so many loves, Jessie was the perfect combination of that which I recognized in myself, and that which I sought to possess. There was an effortlessness to her prettiness: the thrust of her little hand as it reached for things, for me, discarded worries, gum wrappers, tears; the speed of her mouth as it spoke, and her seamless inflections; her cheap clothes, and milky skin. Jessie knew how to lie, how to cry at will, and even in her sadness I saw none of the bald coarseness of my own grief.
It was I that poured hydrogen peroxide on the tooth-marked gash in her left buttock after Ben bit her in one of his tantrums, blowing as my mother did on the frothing wound while she whimpered, clutching a box of Band-Aids. It was me that told her where babies come from.
One afternoon in her bedroom, we were playing Barbies. Watching her mash the two nude, sexless bodies of a Ken and Barbie doll together in a series of frustrated clicks, I wondered aloud what Jessie’s couple was doing.
“They’re making a baby,” she replied. “They are kissing without their clothes, and then Barbie’s belly is going to get fat, and then the stork is going to come with the baby.”
“A stork?” She was clearly lost in some hideous deficit of information, so I offered my expertise on the subject, proudly enunciating the multi-syllabic vocabulary: fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, intercourse. I felt satisfied by her widened eyes, powerful in my knowing.
Later that day, as we sat in the back seat of her family’s minivan, she crawled onto the armrest between the two front seats.
“Melissa said that storks don’t bring babies, Mom. She said that babies come from intercourse.”
I sensed instantly in her mother’s silence my faux pas. Staring at the back of her frizzy head, my face grew hot, insides curling like those little shreds of fabric and plastic that I burned in the Mason jar in my closet, conducting my secret “experiments.” Though not yet tall enough to touch the floor of the van with my feet, I felt myself grow in conspicuousness, as if self-consciousness were bloating my body: a great vesicle of crass knowledge, lodged in the back seat of the van.
I knew that my error had not been one of fact. What I had mistaken is the atmosphere in which it was told me for that larger context of the world. It was an instant awakening to the fact that truth could be a crass thing to know. I did not play so often at Jessie’s after that, but I did not forget Jessie. I think of her every time I hear “Lady in Red.” I also did not forget that in this greater world, for the privilege of sweeter tastes, for prettier names, toys, and smells, one has to pay in the integrity of things whose truth defies the coy obfuscation of prettiness.
Teddy Ruxpin. Does anybody remember him? If not, Teddy Ruxpin was an audio-animatronic toy bear into whose backside was built a cassette tape recorder that played stories with names like “Help Teddy and Grubby Find the Treasure of Grundo!” The whole process involved something called “differential pulse-position modulation,” which means Teddy Ruxpin’s mouth would move along with the “pulse” of the audio, creating the illusion Teddy was actually talking to you. This doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but remove the mediocre “Grundo” cassette and replace it with Mötley Crüe’s “Shout At The Devil” and you’re onto something. You’re onto animatronic blowjobs. And for a ten-year-old, this kind of mischief is the ne plus ultra of existence.
First of all, no self-respecting ten-year-old is going to be caught dead owning a Teddy Ruxpin. This is why younger brothers and sisters—neither of which I had or have—were so important. Larry, a friend of mine if only out of disgruntled, juvenile, sexually frustrated convenience, had a younger sister who had a Teddy Ruxpin and, once we had successfully locked her inside her closet, we’d run over and tear into her toy chest, rip out the “Beware of the Mudblups in the Land of Grundo” tape and rock out–quite literally–with our cocks out. Now, “Shout At The Devil” was a crucial soundtrack for three important reasons:
1.) “Shout At The Devil” kicks ass.
2.) If you squint just right at the album cover (see inset), the Crüe can be construed as hot babes, except of course for Mick Mars, who makes a solid case for the ugliest specimen in rock and roll.
3.) By throwing in that breakneck glam, Teddy’s mouth would move with extraordinary speed, prurient speed. Ideal blowjob speed.
Larry’s mother must have wondered where all her Pond’s cold cream went, because it became evident early on that Teddy Ruxpin’s unlubricated maw was too abrasive on our penises and the cold cream, applied liberally to the top and bottom of his trap, made the process exceedingly more pleasurable.
It was the summer of 1985, a year designated by the United Nations as “National Youth Year” and, unofficially, “The Year I Really Started To Experiment With The Possibilities of Places I Could Put My Penis.” The year of the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, whose exploits I followed with what my father referred to as “unhealthy enthusiasm.” Of astronaut Barbie (who, while exotic and cosmic, could not be fucked, we determined).
Larry and my crapulous affair(s) with Teddy Ruxpin came to an abrupt end when we decided it might be fun to stuff both our dicks inside Teddy Ruxpin’s mouth to the Crüe’s “Too Young To Fall in Love,” for whatever reason. The zeitgeist? Probably not. Our stiff, chubby little worms were too much for Teddy. The bear began to seize, Vince Neil’s vocals began to tremble and as it turned, no amount of Pond’s cold cream could provide a means of egress for our desperate little dongs. Teddy Ruxpin clamped down.
At first, this malfunction was cause for laughter. We scooted around Larry’s sister’s room, howling at the scenario taking place. After Larry’s sister punched her way through her closet and found us in flagrante, our howls took on a different timbre.
“Cathy, get out!”
“It’s my room, Larry! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO TEDDY? MOOOOOOMMMMMAAA!”
Momma. What a terrible thing to hear. You hear of men in battle, the toughest bastards around, screaming for their Mommas. Momma. Oh, Momma. Oh this ends badly. Larry’s mother, who for some reason never recognized that for weeks her daughter would be regularly locked in the closet while her son and his best friend face-fucked a toy bear, would now find a horrific scene. Two boys with their penises stuck inside Teddy Ruxpin, pants at our ankles, as Cathy, who would have been around eight, yanked on Teddy from one end while we made every attempt to extricate our dicks from the bear. A real sordid tug-of war.
Ben Taub is the hospital you go to in Houston if you’ve been shot, stabbed, burned to an exothermic crisp or get your penis stuck in a talking bear. It’s a ghastly place. Larry’s mother drove both Larry and I to the Ben Taub emergency room, where, naked, we sat crying in our humiliating position, penises partially digested by Teddy Ruxpin, “Shout At The Devil” still roaring out of Teddy’s speakers. A man who appeared near death, covered in gore and waiting around to postpone his reward saw the two of us in the waiting room and spoke.
“The world is a sea of rats, isn’t it, boys?” he said, through thanatoid chortles. Larry and I looked at anything but this pestilent old street crazy; we weren’t prepared to acknowledge anything or anyone.
“A fucking sea of rats,” he repeated, fingering one particularly gruesome wound with grubby fingers.
Larry and I were eventually ushered into a foul-smelling room, attended to by a Dr. Kaplan. He asked us our names, the usual drill. We mumbled our names, through hoarse tears. Then he said this:
“You two probably think this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen don’t you?”
Dr. Kaplan applied something stronger than Pond’s cold cream and withouted us and our tormented members from Teddy Ruxpin. I wondered if he liked Mötley Crüe, if it bothered him–I wouldn’t have wanted to offend anybody’s sensibilities. He gave us hospital gowns and told us to wait, that we’d have to be checked over one more time, just to make sure no permanent damage had been done. Relief. I was relieved for a moment, until I decided to ask,
“Dr. Kaplan. Is this the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?” Dr. Kaplan seemed relieved to be asked.
“Thought you’d never ask!,” he said, continuing,” My first year as a resident, I saw a man who tried to cut his own head off with a chainsaw.” This didn’t seem much weirder, just bolder, permanent.
“Gross,” I said. Larry continued crying, sure he was going to “get in trouble.” Get in trouble? Larry, we’re in trouble, dude. It’s terrible, this kind of trouble. You go along just fine, skirting disaster until you don’t. Then what? Then tragedy. But just before it’s tragic, it’s not. We were so close to not being in this situation. Was something else at work? This is an argument for God. Not a benevolent God, just a God. You could argue everything is an argument for him/her/it.
“The weirdest part, though,” Dr. Kaplan went on,” he almost did it. But he didn’t. He lived.”
“Swear to God, he did. Do you want to know how they sewed his head back on?”
“They removed most of his anus and used that tissue to reconnect his neck and head. Talk about a butthead!” Dr. Kaplan laughed uproariously. We laughed nervously. What the hell just happened? Nix. What would happen? We would have to go home soon. What would my parents say? Was this something to be grounded for? This story would get out. Fifth grade was around the corner. I still hadn’t the slightest clue what to do with my penis. No hope, no salvation, existential hunger. Rotted, sweaty teeth. Parental love wears thin. This is the age one acquires enemies. This is when we are at our worst. This is a story, ammunition, a big powder keg, a cache of hellhounds. We didn’t want blood, but we got it. The story would get out.
But until now, it hasn’t.
Of course, how could one compete with the new kid, Davey Martell, a military brat transfer from California who took 5th grade center stage, charging 50 cents a head to people interested in watching him auto-fellate himself in the boy’s bathroom? One couldn’t. The worst part? He wasn’t even that flexible.
Sometimes the world is a sea of rats.
I closed my eyes and I became her size
and I walked through Barbie’s Dream House.
A pink vanity, a large poodle named Prince,
A king sized bed with dust ruffles,
and outside, a pink convertible.
Boy – blue. Girl – pink.
And when I opened my eyes,
her head was torn off
and her body was…
somewhere ’round here.
Ahhh… right here, I picked her up,
she had nipples drawn on sloppily with a green marker
so her left nipple was higher than the right
and looking back, well,
They didn’t know what I knew,
they just locked me in my room
beat me first – shut the door,
and from behind it said
I should have gouged her eyes out too
so she wouldn’t have to
suffer the sight of reality
should her pink convertible
happen to take the wrong turn through the East Side
and she realized that the Dream House
was just a waste of space and that
the hip color was not Pink,
but every shade of gray.
I shoulda given her gray nipples out of pity
but there was only green and I thought it was good,
green nipples being more real that “no” nipples.
And I hoped and I prayed, that when I grew up,
my tits would be as big as Barbie’s.
I looked at myself,
I had nipples.
They said she was expensive,
that when they bought her,
they had to have the Dream House too,
that every little girl with a Barbie,
had Barbie’s wardrobe,
pink and blue.
So, take Barbie’s clothes off,
put on her evening gown
of gold and gold lame,
gold spiked heels at the end
of the longest legs that I’ve ever seen,
and golden hair… long straight and beautiful!
This is what I’m gonna look like when I grow up.
Ken rings the doorbell, he has on his tux,
and NOW I gotta know, yeah I gotta know now
what the executives at Mattel look like
on the top floors of their executive suites
in Downtown El Segundo and
do they wear tuxes to work?
Louie Estrada he worked at Mattel,
in the assembly line,
not the high rise no- the hangar:
Building Number Nine.
Louie Lou-I was my big sister’s friend
from the borderline of the next barrio, La Raza.
Did the men who made Barbie look
kinda like Louie,
a tough and tattooed pachuco?
Or did they look like Ken?
O thought NOT, you know-
Ken did not have a penis.
Why did they do that?
I didn’t know the words
for how I felt back then,
but I do now, see
Barbie and Ken were not real,
they were thrust in our faces as The Ideal:
big tits, long legs dream house, car, money,
and now we have:
boob jobs, lyposuction, tummy tucks AND the gym,
street hustlers, corporate hustlers, fast bucks and
the shape we’re in?
32 forms of anxiety.
Barbie and Ken were the perfect Republicans:
No nipples, and no dicks.
The birth of the Capitalist Android,
they only look human.
And I sincerely doubt, you know that
billboard on Sunset Blvd. of the Barbie Twins?
one facing tits North the other one ass South?
I sincerely doubt that that pisses them off.
Barbie opens the door,
“Ken!” she says, “Do come in.”
Ken says, “You look lovely in your gown.”
and my Daddy walk by the room short ‘n brown
‘n it makes me sad…
Twenty years of Naval dedication.
His goal? To become an Officer.
In the eighteenth year, he’s given that title.
Well, not quite “Officer”
but just a tad short of it.
“Chief Petty Officer”
Chief “Petty” Officer??
It’s not because he wasn’t white.
Nah, it’s not because he wasn’t white….
So Ken says,
“We must go, or we’ll be late for the show”
and they go,
Ken driving Barbie’s pink convertible,
they pull into the drive-in.
Barbie’s SCREAMING because
some guy dressed up like an
ugly old woman is chopping up
a beautiful young woman in the shower.
The one in the shower looks kinda like Barbie to me,
so my NEXT game is Barbie in her pink bathtub
getting chopped to pieces by Ken
in Barbie’s gold lame gown,
this time a red marker
all over her body,
and the bathtub too.
They beat me again.
They said I should respect the doll.
It wasn’t the beating that made me cry,
beating was normal, that’s where they come from.
It wasn’t the beating that made me cry.
It was the accusation of not liking the gift they gave me.
“Every little girl had a Barbie”, they said.
I did like Barbie. I loved her.
And now, I felt so sorry.
She was now to be confined to her Dream House,
where she would never step out and see my world.
She couldn’t really come out to play… she was different.
She was a woman that had never had a childhood.
I knew, that when you’re a kid,
you don’t live all by yourself
in a huge pink fucking house,
you share one room with your four brothers and sisters.
You don’t sleep alone in a king size bed with a pink canopy,
you sleep two in a twin size under a mosquito net.
Poor Barbie, she didn’t have a clue.
There was one bright light for Barbie…
a little boy down the street,
little black boy, he was sweet, he said,
“When I grow up, I’m gonna marry a girl
that look just like Barbie!”
and that made me happy…
So let’s raise a toast to those guys at Mattel,
that promise our children that life won’t be hell,
not gray, but pink, everything pink
boy – blue , girl – pink.
Please see above for audio of the poem, read by the author.