It’s November. It has to be November, because I am going to Disneyland with my family (if we go to Disneyland, we go in November). We are stopping to visit my parents’ friends on the way. I am nine or ten years old. Their son is older than me. He has Downs Syndrome. I run up with him to his room, and we sing into a karaoke machine his parents bought him. It’s not much of a karaoke machine. It’s just a tape player with a cheap plastic microphone and a shitty speaker. He has way too many toys, the sort of stuff you find in the pediatrician’s office. We hop around the room like kangaroos. We slither on the carpet like snakes. I jump up on his bed and start hooting like an ape.
He grabs me and pins me down.
I try to wrestle my way out of it, but he’s incredibly strong. He pins me down again and plants some blunt, weird kisses on my forehead, then he starts squirming all over me, really worked up. His face scrunches. He wiggles for a while, then gets extremely tired. He lays there panting on me. It looks like he’s going to pass out. I writhe out from under him and walk downstairs, angry because of—I can’t tell? What just happened?
I tell on him, and his parents freak out. They’re going ballistic. My parents freak out. I don’t understand why everyone is freaking out.
Sex was presented to me as a system of predator and prey. There was danger lurking around every corner. Girls had to guard themselves because, given the chance, teenage boys would fuck anything that moved. If you were a man, you were a walking, talking erection. You were supposed to be thinking about sex twenty times a minute. Women were supposed to tolerate sex for the emotional benefits, but if they actually liked sex, they were disease-ridden sluts. Gay men were even hornier than the straight ones, and gay women were ugly combative man-haters.
I learned all this before I’d ever had an orgasm, when I still thought women got pregnant by men pissing inside them.
I am in sixth grade, and Kaiser Permanente is putting on a play called Nightmare on Puberty Street. We sit cross-legged on the floor of the gym. The set is blank except for a spraypainted backdrop of silver geometric shapes and neon squiggles. A fog machine fills the stage with blue haze. Then a dozen or so teen actors emerge from behind the backdrop, pushing each other around in a typical playground name-calling scene. They clear out for some reason, but a single kid remains center stage. The spotlight hits him, and he bursts into song: “Noooor-mal!! Am I noooor-mal? What is noooor-mal?” The rest of the play doesn’t matter much. A conversation about moms buying kids jock straps. Something about a suicide scare. “There’s not actually a bone in there,” someone explains, “it’s just called a boner.” The actors stick around after the performance to counsel students. My friends and I joke about boners.
When we were young, health class told us sexual feelings were normal, nothing to be ashamed of. We watched grainy videos from the ’70s of dudes in bell-bottoms watching girls play soccer and feeling something funny going on, of guys prepping their younger brothers for a first date, of girls talking their younger sisters through their first period. Cartoons shimmying beneath bedsheets, then, nine months later, a baby.
But as we got older, health class became sinister. The teachers read lists of STD symptoms: shaking, spots on the legs, parasites, warts. Dementia, heart failure, impotence. We saw photographs of everything. If you had HIV, you wouldn’t know until it was too late. It invaded your bloodstream, turning your white blood cells into virus-ridden bio-bombs, and as soon as the symptoms surfaced, it would be over for you. You’d get a cold, which would turn into a bronchial infection, then pneumonia, and without any white blood cells to fight the infection, you’d be dead. That’s how it was described to me. Another acting troupe dramatized the quick spread of HIV through a group of strangers. I think the play ended with a funeral, but I may be wrong. Don’t have sex, kids.
I kept a laminated business-card-sized abstinence pledge in my wallet. Something like “I commit to save myself for marriage.” I received the card from my church, after a youth group sex talk. “You see,” the youth pastor explained, “all forms of intimacy lead to sex. There is a lot of gray area, like, you know, uh, heavy petting, and, uh, other forms of intimacy, but these are all designed to get you ready for sex. So you need to draw the line at a safe spot and stick to it.”
I went to the youth group with my girlfriend. We never really talked about sex, but we were having plenty of it. We didn’t think it counted, because back then everyone said penetration was the only thing that really mattered, and the rest was all part of an ever-shifting baseball system. Was oral sex was “third base?” I’m not really sure.
I worried that I didn’t think about sex as often as men were supposed to. Was there something wrong with me?
I did have a scar on my penis from a clumsy circumcision. Was that it? Deeply submerged psychosexual terror from a traumatic infant experience?
Sometimes I wondered if I was gay. Maybe that explained why I wasn’t thinking about sex all the time. In health class, they said it was okay to be gay. It didn’t seem like the adults believed it. Most of the adults I knew were Christians. I’d hear fragments of their conversations when the AIDS crisis was blooming: “. . . bathhouses . . . what did they think . . . judgment . . .”
My J.V. high school football coach sees a bunch of guys bent over, hands on knees, after running laps. “Keep standing like that," he says, "now look behind you and spell ‘run.’ R-U-N, get it? are-you-in?”
“Ha ha ha,” we laugh.
“Now stand up straight, bitches. Robertson over here gets it. He used to be a tight end, but now he’s a wide receiver, right? Tight end, wide receiver. Don’t let that faggot get on top of you. He’ll fuck you like the pussies you are!”
“Ha ha ha!”
We walk single file to the field, our spikes clicking the pavement. The other team is lined up in front of the chain-linked fence at the entrance to the football field. They point out the players with the biggest bulges and laugh.
After the pre-game stretching, we huddle up in the end zone, underneath the goalpost. Our breath becomes a cloud in the crisp autumn air. “Okay,” says Brad, the linebacker, “these are the same pussies we destroyed in the preseason. We kicked their asses then, and we’ll fucking do it again!” Yeah! The scattered, emphatic assent is like an amen. “These cocksuckers are coming here, into our fucking house, under our fucking lights, all the way from Danville, just to get their asses handed to them!” Yeah! “Now get in close, here.” Our hot breath gathers over our heads, a misty halo beneath the bright lights. “We’re the best fucking team in the league, and we’re not going to let a bunch of faggots from Danville score a single point against us! (Yeah!) We’re gonna fucking murder them! (Yeah!) Now get your helmets together, in here.” Our silver helmets knock against each other, knock knock thud. Brad starts to chant, quietly. “We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage-and-burn; we’re gonna rape-kill-pillage-and-burn. Eat babies!” We join in, chuckling at first. The chant crescendoes, and we’re all getting into it now, we’re all fucking vikings! “We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage-and-burn! We’re gonna rape-kill-pillage-and-burn! EAT BABIES!”
My imagination goes nuts. Trains crash into each other. I tear some guy’s arm off. I punch a guy so hard that his head swivels. He crumples to the ground. I imagine my fists are smoky blue, glowing with an evil fire, like the final boss in Street Fighter II.
The loudspeakers play “We Will Rock You.” The crowd stomps along with the kick drum. Thump thump CLAP! Thump thump CLAP! Somehow, Freddy Mercury totally fits with our teen aggression ceremony.
Those fucking faggots!
A kid contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, my mom tells me. He was so brave, she says. His name was Ryan White, and they kicked him out of school, but he fought it, bless him. He lived five years longer than the doctors said he would. He passed away, from complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia, but his hope was in the Lord. He said so, as he lay dying in the hospital bed, to whomever came to visit him. And lots of people were visiting him. Famous people. Michael Jackson bought him a red Mustang convertible. He even wrote a song for Ryan, too. Elton John bought his family a house. The kid met with President Reagan, went on TV, talked about his illness. Raised awareness. He was a hero. He didn’t deserve to get that disease, my mom says, but he was so brave. She shakes her head. The Lord surely used him. He didn’t deserve to get that gay disease.
“You have this wild, intense energy about you—one of the most incredible auras I’ve seen.”
“Thank you,” I reply. I’m at a girl’s birthday party in Laguna Beach. I’m hoping to hook up with her tonight. I’m eighteen or nineteen. I’m upstairs chatting with a twenty-something psychic, who assures me he’s not hitting on me. He can tell by my aura that I am not into him, he says. I like hearing him talk about my aura.
Another guy, the psychic’s ex-boyfriend, picks up a small toy monkey and dangles it in front of my face. He swings it back and forth, as if he was a hypnotist: “Be gay! Be gaaaaa-ay!”
The guy is trashed and is trying to grope me. The psychic tells him to knock it off, and the guy goes outside to smoke. As I watch him leave, I see the birthday girl lead someone else by the hand into her room.
“Whoa,” the psychic says, “your energy just spiked. Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, “yeah, no, I don’t know, fuck it.”
I am almost crying. I don’t know why. It’s all so embarrassing.
I drive to the cliff to watch the ocean. I masturbate in the car and fall asleep. I wake up in the middle of the night, confused, full of fear. I hear the loud sound of waves crashing against the rocks. It takes a long time to remember where I am.