I was eleven or twelve when my mother finally gave me the birds and the bees talk. Up until then I was pitifully ignorant on how babies were made. Although not as ignorant as the granddaughter of my next-door neighbor, who thought babies were born through the mother’s nostrils.
“Yeah,” I remember saying, “maybe if you’re a booger baby.” Although what I believed wasn’t exactly sane, either.
I thought all babies were delivered by C-section. I surmised that every mother had to be sliced open to have the baby removed. That was how, I was told, my sister and I were delivered, so I assumed that was the way everyone came out. I knew they didn’t go out through the nose, and I didn’t suspect there was any other way of getting something big out of a body.
I also assumed that most women automatically got pregnant by some kind of act of God after they were married. More than once I had heard childless married women say, “We weren’t blessed with children,” so I guess that is where I got the Divine Conception theory. I thought that married women who did not have kids had done something to piss off God. When I told my sister this one morning as we were walking to the day camp bus stop, she said, “Are you kidding me? That’s how you think women get pregnant? You and Mom need to have The Talk.”
Even though I was the only male in a house of three, women were nevertheless a complete mystery to me. For years I had played with the cardboard tampon applicators that set next to the toilet in a pink rubber trashcan, which oddly enough, I still own today (the can, not the applicators). I didn’t know what they were, and I certainly didn’t know where they’d been, but it was fun to play with the little telescopes while I sat on the toilet. Here’s something I don’t like to admit. If you push your thumb over the bottom of one and blow down into the other end, they make a great whistle.
One day in fifth grade, all the girls got to leave the classroom to go see a movie in the auditorium. The boys were never told what it was about, so we just automatically assumed the worst, figuring it was a full-length Disney animation, or even disheartening to us, The Batman Movie. The boys never got to go see a movie in the auditorium without girls. It just wasn’t fair.
Once, my sister was applying to go to sleepover camp, and I had looked at the application. One of the questions was: “Does your daughter know about menstruation?”
“Hey, Kathryn,” I asked, “what’s menstruation?”
She looked up from her eighth-grade homework at me. “Ask your mother,” she said.
Before I go on, there are a couple of things you have to understand:
1.) My mother hated her job. She worked for an overly-frisky, borderline abusive narcissist, your typical 60’s asshole-in-charge government supervisor.
2.) My mother believed that she was going to be one of those bridge-playing, Junior-Leaguing, garden-clubbing, hat-wearing Ladies Who Lunch. My father was a prestigious editorialist who helped shape public opinion. He was funny and entertaining and had friends in high society, so Mom actually had reason to believe she was headed toward a life of leisure. That shit hit the jet-propelled fan when Dad died, and she had to go to work. Not only did she hate her job, but also she resented working. She also told us that it was my father, not her, who wanted to have kids.
With those two things in mind, it’s pretty obvious that the first thing you want to hear from your ten-year-old son when you walk in the door (after coming home from a crappy day at work with a sexist pig boss at a job you thought you’d never have to work to support children you never wanted to have in the first place, and all you wanted to do now was curl up in bed with a good book and a fishbowl full of bourbon, ice and water) is not: “Mom? What’s menstruation?”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” she sighed, kicking off her heels, “go look it up in the dictionary.” And she headed towards the ice cube tray.
So I did look it up in our ancient Webster’s dictionary. I’m sure it was no different from today’s modern online version:
men·stru·a·tion: a discharging of blood, secretions, and tissue debris from the uterus that recurs in nonpregnant breeding-age primate females at approximately monthly intervals and that is considered to represent a readjustment of the uterus to the nonpregnant state following proliferative changes accompanying the preceding ovulation; also : period.
So, yeah, that really shed light on it for me. Whatever it was, it sounded pretty disgusting, and since it only occurred in female primates, I knew it was never going to happen to me, so I was happy not to pursue it.
“Where’s your sister?” visiting friends asked that summer.
“She’s at menstruation camp,” I’d say.
“Don’t you know anything? Look it up in the dictionary.”
This was a common ploy of mine. As long as I made people think I knew things, I got by. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was a master at this. There were three groups of boys in the sixth grade: those who knew about sex, those who didn’t know about sex, and those who pretended to know about sex. The cool boys were the ones who knew about it. The ones who pretended to know about it could hang out with the cool guys, but neither of those groups would associate with the ignorant. As a pretender, I had to watch everything I said.
So my sister had begged mom to Explain Things to me. I had embarrassed her too many times about things that shouldn’t be brought up in a public venue. (“Mom? What are those little telescopes in the bathroom trash can?” I once asked at a cafeteria.) But it wasn’t until I formally made the request for my facts of life talk that Mother finally gave in.
I had asked because I had blown my cover with the cool boys. I had made a fatal faux pas in telling a friend of mine to go give a girl a “blow job.”
Everyone was talking about blow jobs in sixth grade. I took everything literally. Why would you want someone to inflate your penis? Wouldn’t that hurt? Where does the air actually go? Out your nose? Would they have to cut it out of you?
“Bill,” Joe had said, “you can’t blow a girl.”
I was immediately transferred to the other side of the line drawn in the sand: in the corner with the unknowing.
I’d had enough. It was getting too confusing. Girls could menstruate but couldn’t get blow jobs. Boys could get blow jobs but not give them, and they couldn’t menstruate. So it was that night I had made the request. Mom asked for some time and told me to start writing down the questions I had.
I grew impatient. I had to know and know now. A gap was growing between the boys in my class who knew the facts and me. I was so anxious about it, I was wetting the bed. I secretly slept on towels at night. One day Mom brought home something in a paper bag and quickly skipped the ice cube tray and went in her bedroom. A minute later she came out into the kitchen without the package.
This is how I ruined every Christmas. Every present was peeked at. Mail that I was not supposed to read was also hidden in her room. There was no lock on her door, and I had a two after-school hour window to snoop through her room to find things I had no business finding.
What I found was this tall, narrow, very colorful book called Take the High Road, which would have been better titled, Don’t Even Think About Masturbating. I sneaked it into my room and read the entire book in less than 15 minutes. It was a puritanical book warning against getting involved with the wrong crowd and dictating the way boys should treat girls, but its focus was a list of things that could happen if you masturbated. You would fall into the wrong crowd. That would lead to catching VD and not being able to graduate from high school. The illustrations were sinister and frightening. The book insisted that whacking off could damage the penis and make you sterile, which I assumed meant really, really clean. This book was of no help, but it sure made me a lot more curious about jerking off. This would turn into the first of many things in life I did that were allegedly bad for you, but really, really felt good doing them. The sad part is, it was the least harmful.
I put the book back in the bag and returned it to her top dresser drawer, under her bras. I went back to my bedroom and wrote down more questions. And made sure I had my secret towel ready for my slumber that night.
That Friday, after supper and the dishes were done and my sister had left the house to spend the night at the house of one of her menstruation camp mate's, Mom and I sat down on our beat-up sectional sofa in the den.
She had a legal pad and a sharp number 2 pencil, and she drew what looked like the head of a bull (the horns, I soon learned, were called fallopian tubes) and started the explanation. The mysteries of erections, fornication, impregnation, masturbation, and yes, even menstruation were solved in less than an hour. And I cried with relief to find out I wasn’t a bed wetter at all but merely an innocent wet dreamer, a mere adolescent with normal, textbook nocturnal emissions. I was pleased to find I was headed toward adulthood, not reverting back to diapers.
We then switched to the question-and-answer period.
My first question was, “What’s a blow job?” It was reluctantly explained with moderate disgust.
“Next question,” Mom prodded.
“What do homosexuals do?” I asked.
Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped ever so slightly. She stood up.
“I’m going to go fix a drink,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
She returned shortly, dark brown cocktail in one hand and Take the High Road in the other.
She took a swig of her drink and sat back down.
“I bought you this book,” she said, handing me the diversion.
Tossing it aside, I said, “Thanks. So, what do homosexuals do?”
“How do you know about homosexuals?” she asked.
“Everyone knows about that. I just want to know what they do.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because it’s one of my questions. You’re the one who asked me to write down all my questions and said you’d answer them all.” Sheesh. It was like pulling teeth.
Eventually she told me what homosexual men and lesbians did to each other.
I was so excited. I couldn’t wait until Monday so I could tell Joe that women could get blow jobs.
But only from other women.
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