My first real exposure to sex came when I was only in second grade and Anne Campbell came over to my house for lunch. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread and drank Dr. Pepper before going to the basement where we played with my menagerie of plastic dinosaurs.
Anne favored the Brontosaurus, a species I now know never really existed. It turns out that the supposed experts were confused and put the wrong skull on the wrong fossilized skeleton. When I was a grown man and found this out, it did not surprise me. By then I had learned that experts cannot be trusted, but if I had found out that the Brontosaurus never existed when I was a kid, it would have really shaken me. Nothing is worse than thinking everything is one way, in fact being sure of it, and then finding out the whole thing was a sham.
Back when the Brontosaurus was a scientific fact, Anne just loved puttering around the basement floor with that miniature dinosaur, while I couldn't get enough of making my little Tyrannosaurus Rex attack the hapless but spiny Stegosaurus.
Anne, on the other hand, eventually grew tired of not only the fictional Brontosaurus, but all the rest as well. She looked at a closed door across the room. "What's in there?"
"Nothing," I told her. "It's only the laundry room."
Anne sighed and said, "Let's go in there."
"Why? There's nothing to see but a washer and dryer."
"We could go in there and hide."
"Well, we could do stuff while we hide. If you take off your clothes, I'll take off mine."
I didn't say anything and tried to keep looking at the T Rex and Stegosaurus, but I could see Ann out of the corner of my eye, and I thought about her without her clothes on. Other than being naked and looking at each other, I wasn't sure what else we could do. Did she want me to kiss her like the people on television?
A light fluttering sensation filled my chest, and my hands were shaking. We could go in there, I thought, and Mom probably would never find out. But God would, and I figured He wasn't real keen on the getting naked part. Back then I thought about God often and always assumed He looked like the pictures of Jesus printed in my mother's Bible. Longhaired, wearing a robe and sandals, He'd have that glow around His head, a plate-shaped halo of translucent gold. For some reason, I always pictured God in a cave, listening to everyone's prayers on a radio. Like most little kids, my theology was suspect, but I knew that He would know I was naked with some girl beside my mother's Kenmore washer.
"Well, do you want to?" Anne asked me this in the same way that she might have asked, "Do you want to play Chutes and Ladders? Or do you want to play Candyland?"
I didn't say anything about God and Jesus. I just told her my mom didn't want us going in the laundry room.
Anne didn't seem particularly disappointed. We picked up my dinosaurs and went upstairs to watch TV. While Anne looked at a Three Stooges episode on Countdown Carnival, I watched her and wondered what she looked like without her clothes.
A few years later, I found out a little more about why Anne's offer to get naked made me feel nervous, afraid, and exhilarated all at once. There was more to it all than simply taking off your clothes with a girl. There were things you did once you got naked.
Cheryl Thomkinson explained the facts of life to me out on the edge of the playground, in a small piece of woods along a chain link fence that separated the schoolyard from the houses beside it. There among the trees, honeysuckle grew along the fence, and I plucked the blossoms with Cheryl, pinched off the ends, and sucked the sweet nectar.
In the midst of the plucking and sucking Cheryl made an announcement: "Today at lunch, Terry Bonito asked if he could do it with me."
The atmosphere seemed to change with her words, like a storm blowing in. I had no idea how to respond, so I kept picking honeysuckle blossoms and pulling them apart.
"You don't even know what that means, do you?" Cheryl asked.
"Well, 'doing it' could mean just about anything," I said, but I already knew that "it" had something to do with all that getting naked business.
Cheryl proceeded to use other words that described what Terry wanted to do with her. I listened intently, trying to understand without appearing completely ignorant. To cover up for my lack of knowledge, I tried to act nonchalant and kept plucking blossoms. Perhaps that is why I still find the fragrance of honeysuckle vaguely arousing, even to this day.
During my sixth grade year, the authorities over us decided that we needed to know more about the whole sex thing, so they showed us a movie. This was 1970, way before sex education became the norm in schools, and because it was a pilot program, notes went home to our parents.
My mother was appalled. "These kids don't need to know about all of this now. Some of them are still playing with Barbies and GI Joes!"
My mother was only half-correct. The last time my GI Joe made an appearance was when Dave Starkey noticed my little sister's Barbie on the floor and wanted to show me how his parents "did it." He claimed to have witnessed the conception of his new infant brother by hiding in his parent's closet, and he aimed to show me how it was done. We pulled down my GI Joe from the closet, and he stripped off Joe's fatigues. Back then, they were the same size as a Ken doll, so after he removed Barbie's prom dress, Dave put Joe on top of Barbie, and they were pretty much in scale to one another. However, the whole demonstration meant little to me because both Barbie and GI Joe were smooth down where the real action was taking place. I already knew more than was useful about my own private parts, but a girl's anatomy was still a mystery, and Barbie didn't help me one bit.
My mother did not prevent me from seeing the movie in school, despite her feelings about the whole thing, so I eagerly awaited that day when we filed into the All Purpose Room and were herded into two separate groups. The girls sat on one side and the boys sat on the other.
Mr. Bailey, our gym teacher, stood straight and tall with incredible posture. His crew cut seemed especially bristly that day. Next to him was Miss Metzger, a sixth-grade teacher who wore miniskirts and what my Dad called go-go boots. Already, she had become the object of some student lust, but not on my part, for I understood that she was old and mature and I was not, so I found her intimidating and almost maternal, even if my mother never wore her dresses that short.
Most of the time Mr. Bailey and Miss Metzger were incredibly cool, the kind of people we kids all hoped we could become. This morning was different. Both of them were nervous, maybe embarrassed, and perhaps fearful about the group of PTA parents who demanded to see the movie and sat in the back of the room like vultures waiting for something to die. Mr. Bailey and Miss Metzger each addressed us students briefly and encouraged us to take the movie seriously. Both reminded us to act like "the young men and women we were becoming."
They must have stolen that phrase from the movie because the newscaster-sounding voice repeated it several times while the 16mm film flashed images of our changing bodies. As we sat there in stupefied and sexually segregated rows, the diagrams of male and female bodies kept coming at us, but I never saw what I really wanted to see. It seemed like the girls got a better deal than us boys because the guy's thing was plenty obvious, but the girl's parts were depicted rather vaguely, except for the drawings of the female's internal reproductive organs, which were confusing. As far as I was concerned, the front view of a woman's uterus and ovaries looked like the head of the cartoon character Bullwinkle the Moose.
Alas, the things we learn while young are the things we remember, for better or worse. When my wife and I went for a sonogram during our first pregnancy, the woman running the machine used the word "uterus," and there I was, back in elementary school, watching, and wondering, and thinking of Rocky the Flying Squirrel's sidekick.
About the same time in sixth grade as when we saw the movie, I fell in love or lust or something akin to each with a girl named Tammy Dunleavey, a blonde who was perhaps the prettiest girl in sixth grade. My friend Dave Starkey also wanted her and we might have hated each other and gotten into a fight over her, but we both realized that Tammy scarcely knew either of us existed.
Dave talked constantly about Tammy. One day we were hanging out in my driveway, and he was going on and on about Tammy, talking about her attributes.
My other friend Frank was listening but bored. He pulled a piece of chewed-up gum out of his mouth. "This lost its flavor about three hours ago. I should get rid of it."
"Where?" I asked. "I don't want to step on it."
Frank looked around, walked over to a telephone pole and stuck it right beneath one of the foot pegs. "I wonder how long it will stay there," he said. "I'll have to keep checking on it. It'll be an experiment." Frank had a very logical mind and could tell us exactly how many days it was until Christmas, even in the middle of April.
Dave, on the other hand, had Tammy on his mind and kept talking about her. "Not only is she blond," he was saying, "but she also has such a great figure."
Frank was a seventh grader who went to a Catholic school and had never met Tammy. He laughed and said, "Sixth grade girls don't have figures."
"This one does." Dave gestured with his hands, making womanly curves in the air.
Frank just rolled his eyes.
"I want to go all the way with her," Dave said.
"Yeah, right," Frank said.
"For one thing, you're twelve."
"That doesn't matter. Tony Evans has had sex, and he's the same age as me."
"How do you know that?"
"He told me."
"And you believe him?"
"He's got that old camper in his backyard, and I saw him go in there with Lori Kingsley. That's when he did it."
"He could have been doing anything in there," Frank said.
Dave said, "Maybe he did the deed, maybe he didn't. But I'm old enough."
"Deep down inside," Frank said, "you know you wouldn't, you know, get deep down inside with a girl."
"It's not right," Frank said.
"Who says it's not right?" Dave asked. "It might not be okay for you Catholics. Heck, your preachers don't even get married. But I'm not Catholic."
"Your church says it's okay for you to have sex?" Frank asked.
"I don't know about that, but the Bible says to be fruitful and multiply. How do you do that without sex?"
"That's what sex is for. Married people do it and have babies. It's not something you do just for fun."
"That's so old-fashioned. Everybody does it now, so it's all different."
"God doesn't change," Frank said quite sternly.
Everything got quiet for a moment. I suppose it was because of all the God talk that was going on.
"Don't worry, Frank," I said, breaking that ominous silence. "Dave can't go all the way with Tammy. He hasn't even talked to her."
"I have talked to her," Dave protested. "Just the other day in the cafeteria."
"Talking isn't the same as going all the way with a girl," I said.
"I'll buy her a gift," Dave said. "Then she'll be impressed."
"I'd want a girl to like me for who I am," I said, "not for what I can give her."
"Well, you want her, too, and she doesn't even know who you are," Dave said. "You haven't even talked to her yet."
"I'm going to talk her."
"I don't know. Sometime."
"How about tomorrow? Or are you chicken?"
"I'm not chicken, and I don't need to buy her any gifts either. I'll talk to her tomorrow," I said, not knowing how I'd pull it off.
Frank simply shook his head and was probably glad that he went to an all-boys school.
The next day came, and the idea of actually talking to Tammy seemed impossible as meeting the President. I ate lunch with Dave in the cafeteria, the very place he claimed to have talked to Tammy, but she was on the other side of the room.
"If you're serious, why not go over there now and talk to her?" Dave asked
"She's got all her dippy little friends with her," I said. We both looked longingly toward the table where Tammy sat, surrounded by other cute girls, but none were the same caliber as Tammy.
"I eat lunch with you every day," I said. "When did you ever speak to her?"
"Well, one day I was here before you were, and I was in line next to her."
"So, what did you say?"
"The hamburgers look good."
"Great line," I said.
"Well, she did at least talk to me. She said her mother told her that the hamburgers weren't real beef. They're made out of soybeans, which are some kind of animal feed."
"That's really romantic," I said. "I don't want to talk about fake hamburgers. I need to catch her alone, so we can really talk."
"Lots of luck," Dave said.
"I've got a plan," I told him.
I knew how it would all play out: I would walk Tammy home, even though she lived in the opposite direction from my house. The rest of the day, I imagined myself talking to Tammy. In class we saw a movie about solar eclipses, read articles in Scholastic magazine, and solved math problems, but I was never really there at all. I saw myself walking with Tammy down suburban streets, and in my thoughts, she kept looking at me like she actually saw the great person I was, the person no one seemed to appreciate. In my thoughts, my plan was flawless.
Reality was different. First of all, Dave followed me out the back door of the school where we knew Tammy would be. Of course, she still wasn't alone. Her friends swarmed around her, three young chattering pseudo-sirens who were pretty, but were mere children with angular boyish bodies, not at all like the near-woman Tammy had become. The girls appeared to be in full conversation, but from where Dave and I stood, we could hear no words, only three voices that seemed to be teasing us. When Tammy tossed her long blond hair back and glanced over her shoulder, I swore she was looking me. She said something to her friends, and they all laughed.
"She's on to me," I said.
"How could she be?" Dave asked. "Who would have told her? Only you and I know about your plan."
"You told her, didn't you?"
"I didn't. I swear to God."
Something inside my chest seemed to shift. There he was bringing God into the whole mess again. "How can you even swear to God? You think the Bible tells you it's okay to doink Tammy!"
"I never said that. But I didn't say anything to Tammy about you either."
By then, Tammy and her friends had moved past the little woods where I once picked honeysuckle and learned about sex from Cheryl Thomkinson. The girls turned down a steep little sidewalk that split two suburban yards and spilled out into the sprawling development below.
"Let's follow them," Dave said.
We hung back, trying to look casual and not like the stalkers we had become. Dave and I kept the girls in view as we passed the ranch houses and split levels that repeated themselves over and over, street by street. Suddenly, Tammy broke from her friends and entered a house up on a little hill. The other girls kept going.
"Now's your chance," Dave said.
We picked up our pace until a woman walked out the same door Tammy had just entered. She was a fat blonde who wore pink stretch pants and proceeded to uncoil a garden hose.
"That can't be her mother," Dave said. "A goddess like Tammy can't have a mom like that."
"I don't know if that's her mom, but I'm not going up there."
"I knew you'd chicken out," Dave said.
"I ain't chicken, but what do you expect me to do? I can't just walk up there with her mother home."
"That's probably a maid. Tammy couldn't have a mother like that."
"Maid or mom, I don't care. I just made up a new plan. Come on."
We turned and ran all the way back to the school and found the pay phone by the janitor's closet. The door was open and I could see the bucket that the janitor pushed down the hall whenever a kid puked in class. I then felt like I might puke myself. Bending over with my hands on my knees, I tried to catch my breath and hoped the nausea would pass.
"Are you going to call her or not?" Dave asked.
"Yeah, just give me a minute."
"I'm going to look up her number. You're not chickening out this time." He took the phone book that hung in a binder from a steel cord and found the only Dunleavey on Halsey Street where we had just been.
"I should have checked the number on the house," I said.
"It has to be her," Dave said. "Go ahead and call. If you don't, I will."
"Let me catch my breath first." I stood up straight, inhaled deeply, and still felt like I would puke.
"You look like you're okay now. I want to see you do this, so come on." Dave put money in the phone and dialed, then handed me the receiver.
A woman's voice answered, which I assumed was the fat lady we had seen in the front yard. When I asked for Tammy, the woman groaned and put down the phone with a clunk.
"What's happening?" Dave asked.
"The lady's going to get Tammy," I whispered.
A moment later Tammy said, "Hello."
I didn't know what to say.
"Hello," she repeated, annoyance already creeping into her voice.
"Hi," I said. "How are you doing?"
"Who is this?" she asked curtly.
No sooner than I uttered my name, a loud click in my right ear told me that she had quite deliberately hung up. I jerked the phone away and stood there with it in my hand. With no students present, the hallway was silent, and all Dave or I could hear was the sound of Tammy disconnected from me.
"Maybe I won't buy her a gift after all," Dave said.
That spring proceeded with merciful swiftness. Tammy always seemed to be looking away whenever I saw her, which was fortunately only during lunch. Sometimes when I watched her from across the room, I felt like I could go over and try again, and that she would accept me. At other times, I wanted to go over to her table and tell her off in front of her friends. Of course, I did neither. Eventually, I got caught up in the excitement of school winding down. All of us kids were exultant because we were the big sixth graders, and the next year we would no longer be just kids. We would be in junior high.
In those days there was no graduation ceremony for elementary school kids, but someone did have the idea for a dance. I always assumed Miss Metzger was behind it, because she had been the prime mover for putting on Romeo and Juliet as the sixth grade play, and she probably also had something to do with getting the sex movie in our school. At least that is what my parents thought, so I assumed there was truth behind my father once referring to Miss Metzger as the "hussy in the boots."
Once again, my mother despaired. "Why, we never had dances until high school! These kids are barely beyond G.I. Joes and Barbies!"
How I wished I could play with Tammy Dunleavey like Dave had played with G.I. Joe and Barbie, but she would have nothing to do with me. The dance would be different, I hoped. I would walk right up to her and she would notice me. We might even dance, which seemed enormously sexy at that time. I had never done that before, not real dancing anyway, but in music class they made us square dance sometimes, and just touching a girl charged the air with possibilities. I imagined that dancing with real rock music would be just what I needed to break the ice with Tammy. After all, I had watched American Bandstand on television, and it all seemed like little more than shaking around in time with the music.
The very real prospect of actually dancing, however, seemed more and more daunting as the time drew near. Like most of the others, I did not have a date, so when the big night came, my mother dropped Dave and me off at the door. She sullenly drove away, still thinking dances for sixth graders were absurd.
The boys and girls kept walking into the All Purpose Room, and even without people telling us what to do, we dispersed into two groups, girls on one side and boys on the other, much like we did when we watched the sex movie, except this time there were no chairs, so we lined up against the walls. The boys talked to boys, and the girls talked to girls, and we all eyed each other fearfully across the green tile floor while we waited for the music to start.
A few kids arrived with dates. Robbie McCabe, the recent Romeo of our sixth-grade play entered with his Juliet, Kim Davidson. They remained together, somewhat in the middle of the room, not wanting to be separated. In fact they moved so close together that Robbie slipped his arm around Kim's waist. They spoke to Mike Blum, who was setting up his brother's huge Marantz stereo on a table in front of the stage. He was going to be our DJ, which was a shame because in that day nobody listened to records at dances. The smallest dance party needed a real band, even a bad one, but we were only sixth graders, so we only got records. Mike was the center of attention for a moment, even if he was gangly, had a crop of premature acne, and wore heavy black glasses, because we all were waiting for music, and Robbie, one of the coolest kids in school, was talking to him.
That all changed when someone with an incredibly loud car drove up in the parking lot. Through the windows, we could see a fastback Mustang stop, and Tammy Dunleavy got out of the car. Terry Bonito crawled out of the back seat and yelled something to the driver, who peeled out across the parking lot, screeching tires and burning rubber. Terry stood in the wake of the smoke and stench, took Tammy's hand, and walked inside.
My heart literally hurt at the sight of them. My love, or at least the epicenter of all my budding lust and infatuation, had come to the dance with the boy who wanted to do the deed with Cheryl Thomkinson.
About that time the music started. Mike cued up a record, and the needle landed with a thud of rumble and hiss. Cream's "White Room" erupted from the speakers, loud and distorted. Robbie and Kim started gyrating in front of each other. Back then, dancers only touched each other during slow make out songs that came late in the evening, so Robbie and Kim mostly twitched and shimmied with a good amount of space between them. They seemed confident in their movements, out there looking like they knew what they were doing. Tammy and Terry joined in, doing their own kind of dance. All four of them moved basically in rhythm, but no one was doing the same steps, and their arms flailed all over the place. The rest of us kids who had even less of an idea about what to do simply watched.
Mike kept on playing records, and a few more kids started to dance, but most of us stayed right where we were, boys with boys and girls with girls. I wanted to ask someone to dance, if only to keep from feeling like a loser and an idiot. I wanted to show Tammy that I didn't need her, especially after she put me down just to take up with a scuzzball like Terry Bonito. But I had to venture across the floor, so I kept looking around and wondered who might actually want to dance. I envied Mike Blum, who may have been stone ugly, but he had something to do besides not dancing. He played Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," and I did wish I had someone to love, or at least someone to dance with.
For a long time, very few kids joined the small group twisting and shuffling in the middle of the room. The boys and girls just kept eyeing each other across the no man's land that was the dance floor. Eventually we discovered a common ground at the back of the room where snacks had finally been set out by a group of concerned mothers. They stood by the table with their arms folded and watched the kids, especially the ones approximating dancing.
There under the gaze of the mothers, an odd thing happened. Boys and girls spoke to each other and engaged in real conversations, yelling to be heard above Mike's blaring stereo. We ate potato chips, drank sodas, and began to actually have a good time. More kids paired off and made their way to the dance floor.
I was doing just fine, simply talking to Jody Whately, a tall skinny girl with red hair. Somewhere in the course of our conversation, she referred to herself as a strawberry blonde, but there was no mistaking it: her hair was simply red. At various times, I looked for Tammy, hoping she would see me with a girl, but she was always busy with Terry, slinking around and dancing, or simply slinking around.
While I was looking across the dance floor, Jody started to speak up but stopped, as if what she wanted to say was unspeakable. Then she told me that her relatives were from Ohio, so when they drank Coke, they called it pop. We both laughed together at the notion of people actually calling something pop.
"My relatives are from North Carolina," I told her. "They know a Coke when they see one. But they sometimes drink other stuff like Dr. Pepper or RC Colas. They also eat these cool little things called Moon Pies."
"Moon Pies," Jody repeated. "Just the name sounds scrumptious." She smiled at me, and I could tell that there was something more on her mind than chocolate-covered snack food.
I smiled back and tried to figure out something else to say.
She jumped right in and asked, "Do you want to dance?"
I found myself saying I did when I really didn't, but there was nothing else for me to do. As I walked out on the floor, it occurred to me that I should find a spot close to Tammy, just so she could see me with Jody, but both Tammy and Terry had disappeared. When Jody and I started dancing, I tried to take my cues from her, but she seemed very uncoordinated. Her long arms kept jerking around, and her feet were a jumble of steps, so I imitated her movements, only I tried to make my motions a bit smoother.
"You're a great dancer!" Jody shouted, twitching like she was having a seizure.
"Thanks," I said, knowing better that that, even then, but I took her seriously and tried all the more to move like I had been dancing for most of my brief life. If the truth were told, very few people in 1970 knew how to dance. Between the soc hop and disco eras, people merely moved rather than danced. One look at the Woodstock movie filmed just a year earlier reveals the truth: all those young people were stoned and merely let the music take them away, and those who weren't stoned danced like they might as well have been. I, on the other hand, always knew that I really couldn't dance. In fact some years later, when real dancing revived, young black kids mimicked people like me with a dance they called "The White Boy."
Jody and I kept jerking our heads around, flailing our hands, and twisting our hips this way and that. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Mike put on a slow song, "Yesterday" by the Beatles. How was I supposed to shimmy to that? I wondered. For an instant, I panicked, looked around, and saw couples moving close together. I looked at Jody, and she looked at me. Then we stepped toward each other. I had no idea where exactly I should put my hands, but they found a place, and we shuffled around with the other kids. Our slow dancing was even more pathetic than our fast dancing, but I wished that Tammy could see me so close to another girl, not moping around wishing I were with her.
During our dance, I even decided that I didn't care about Tammy any more. Up close, Jody didn't look so bad, and maybe her hair was strawberry blonde after all. I could feel the room changing around me with all those kids slow dancing. We all liked being close; it seemed a good thing.
Mike, the non-dancer he was, could not read the mood and followed up the Beatles with a lame fast song called "Sugar, Sugar." Jody and I danced along with it, but as soon as it was over, she fanned herself with her hand and said, "It's so hot in here. Let's go outside."
We walked out the door and into the June twilight where some kids were standing around, trying to catch a breeze in all the heat or evade the racket of Mike's stereo. As I looked around, I could tell that some of them were doing more than that. Robbie and Kim were just around the corner, out of the mothers' and teachers' sight. They were locked in a kiss that was long and unbroken, nothing like the stage kiss they had shared as Romeo and Juliet several weeks earlier. Not far away from them, Tammy and Terry were also kissing. Terry looked somewhat like he was climbing a tree because his hands were moving around so much on Tammy's back.
Jody sighed, and I surmised that she wanted me to kiss her, too. She was beside me, almost as close as when we slow danced. In the diffused light of the parking lot, she looked almost pretty, but I put my hands in my pockets and looked down at my feet because I didn't want to look at her any more, much less kiss her. The whole evening had exhausted me, and I wished the whole thing were over and done with, so I could ride away with my mother in our Pontiac Star Chief. I longed to be at home, safe in our kitchen, eating Oreos and drinking milk. I was completely worn out, tired of feeling like I knew too much for a kid, but not enough for whatever was supposed to come after that.
Stepping away from Jody, out of both dancing and kissing range, I realized that all the dancing, kissing, and sex stuff could wait, at least for a while. After all, I was barely twelve.
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