A Brief History of Sex Education, page one

March 16, 2010

This first page of the memoir was originally published in the online magazine Brevity and then in the print journal Creative Nonfiction. I have to say I still remember the day my mom called me to tell me Mark Merlini had died–he was a beautiful and funny boy with the most amazing smile–the whitest teeth I’d ever seen! the blackest hair!–and despite the brevity of our lovely little relationship, I miss him still.

The summer I turned eleven, I was Mark Merlini’s girlfriend for four hours. He lived down the street and suddenly seemed cute, so we kissed for about a half-hour on the hill behind his house, facing the highway bypass in Gilford, New Hampshire. He kissed with his mouth open so of course I opened mine, but our mouths created a strange suction that I found unpleasant and a little stupid. When I broke up with Mark—after I’d walked home, had time to think about things and called him on the phone—he thought he’d frightened me with his sexual prowess. “We don’t have to make out,” he said. “I guess we moved a little fast.”

“It’s not that,” I said. “I just don’t like you,” and after he protested a few more times, I hung up. My reason for breaking up with Mark was no more truthful than his vows to keep us together, but it was the best I could do when I was eleven.

Boys like Mark were a dime a dozen. I was either friends with guys in junior high or rivals, with a reputation for being as tough, as quick, and as mean. I had gained their respect back in grade school by outlasting them at dodgeball, standing alone in the circle while they pitched the ball and missed me, one by one.

I thought I knew as much about sex as I did dodgeball, it was just that I hadn’t put my expertise into practice yet. I read a lot and was a know-it-all about plenty of things I’d never done, and though I can say now knowledge without practice is pretty close to ignorance, I really thought I had a handle on things at eleven.

I began working that year too, at the Riverbank Boardinghouse in downtown Laconia, managed by my Uncle Joe who lived there free in exchange for taking care of the place. My dad was the oldest of eight, and while half our aunts and uncles were scattered across the country, Uncle Joe and Uncle Sean were in town and came to the house to visit Gram for supper on Sundays, along with Uncle Mike whenever he was on leave from the Army. They’d drink beer and smoke Marlboros and watch old war movies or westerns if hockey or baseball wasn’t on, and they spoiled my brother Kevin and me in that funny way of bachelor uncles, giving us old tobacco tins and ammo boxes, army issue light sticks and books of iron-on decals, or sometimes just crushed up dollar bills from their pockets or a spare handful of change.

And now Joe had given me a job—one he probably overpaid me for and didn’t really need me to do—but I was happy to have it. I rode my bike downtown and Joe and I would split up and each take a room, change the sheets, vacuum and dust, only seeing each other at the end of the afternoon when we’d fold the sheets from the dryer, putting them away to use the next week.

The boardinghouse was for men only, and every room was taken, but strangely it always seemed empty. I never saw a soul and the rooms were so neat you wouldn’t think anyone lived there at all outside of Uncle Joe. Each room had standard issue furniture, dark brown and clunky, and the bedspreads and curtains were the heavy polyester of cheap hotel rooms in the typical colors: olive, orange, mustard yellow. The rooms were ugly and sad, and I imagined tired old men lived in them whose lives were too dull to be messy, men who had too much time on their hands to be much good at all. But signs of life popped up in the most unexpected places. Above the door frames, between the mattresses and the box springs and inside the closets, were the most impressive and frightening pictures of naked women I’d ever seen.

These pictures were not your run-of-the-mill, foggy-lensed Playboy shots of cute, clean-shaven girls in cowboy hats and bandannas holding lollipops. These were mean women crouching toward the camera, ready to pounce and claw. Their thick, meaty thighs were spread wide with piles of curly hair surrounding vaginas that looked menacing, terrifying to me, especially when it was only the vaginas I’d see. Sometimes the pictures were headless and legless, close up shots of just wet pink folds amidst a dark forest of curls as if nothing else mattered, as if the vagina were its own separate life form that needed nothing and no one else to survive. I’d seen the Playboy bunnies and I’d seen my mother lounging in the bathtub of our one-bathroom house when I absolutely had to go, but I’d never seen pictures like this before. For these women, sexuality was a weapon, and their bodies housed something dark and powerful and completely alien to me. I could accept the clean, childlike image of the bunny, and I felt close to the mature, maternal sexuality of my mother’s body, but I had no idea what to do with the force in these split-wide, come-and-get-me shots. I didn’t know if it was a power I would have in me or if it was something I would need to hide, in the way these sad old men slid these pictures beneath their mattresses or placed above the door so they’d only get a glance before they left the room.


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