Sometimes after church, when I was about 10, I'd get permission to ride home with a friend who lived with her grandmother in a sprawling rustic house. She was my age, but seemed very worldly, and I was fascinated by her bedroom, a shrine to Scott Baio, papered with photos from Teen Beat.
Usually, we'd run around the fields near her house or play 45's on her portable record player. Her favorite record was "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen and especially the B side, "Don't Try Suicide," which hardly anyone I know remembers. Rereading the lyrics for that song, they are dark and sexual, and I remember now the forbidden chill that came from listening. If we'd played that song more than once in my house, my mother would have come knocking.
One particular day, I found myself standing at the foot of a tree, beneath a crude treehouse, while she and her neighbor, a redheaded boy who'd bullied me since first grade, did something mysterious. I was getting bored, so I called, "Can I come up? What are you guys doing up there?"
The bully called down, sneeringly, "Didn't your daddy ever teach you about sex?" Of course, he used much cruder language.
"No," I answered disdainfully. You didn't talk about sex in my household. You dealt with it.
As far back as I can remember, my parents never kissed in front of us. Not even on Valentine's Day or their anniversary, when Dad brought Mom flowers. For all we knew, our parents had sex just three times: in order to have me and my brother and sister. I was happy in that belief. Better yet: that we were miracle babies, born full-fledged from our mother's forehead.
It's not that my parents believed in keeping us ignorant. My parents had always allowed us to read whatever we wanted, although they always seemed to know what we were reading. When I was about 11, I was reading the Judy Blume book, Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, which talks about a girl flowering into womanhood.
As she painted a child's table and chairs white for my sister, Mom casually noted that she'd seen the book I was reading. "What do you know about menstruation?" she asked. I had to admit I knew very little. So right there, she told me the basic facts of life, never pausing in her work, painting everything white. Pure white.
A few years later, she bought me Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, an educational book for teens on sex and relationships, written by the same feminists who wrote, Our Bodies, Ourselves. The book described sexual issues in detail, complete with bisected drawings of the male and female anatomy. Mom told me to come to her if I had any questions. I didn't really have any, because aside from clarifying a few things, the book hadn't taught me much. You see, I'd already picked up quite a bit of information from my peers. In fact, I'm certain Mom would have been surprised to learn just what her bookish daughter had been doing.
The boy next door, a couple years my senior and very precocious when it came to such matters, had taught me how to French kiss at the tender age of 7, an experience which grossed me out. His tongue reminded me of a worm, snaking its way into my mouth. I declined a repeat performance.
On another fateful day, he'd talked me into imitating something he'd seen somewhere. After first dropping our pants, we'd lain on the garage floor, him on top. The floor was cold, and we were wedged between my Dad's car and a loose collection of rusty tools. After lying motionless for a minute, he asked me, "Does it feel good?"
"I guess," I lied. The whole experience left me completely unimpressed, as coincidentally, did my first sexual experience, many years later in college, which ended, as I remember, with exactly the same question and answer.
While Mom didn't know about these stolen moments, she did take notice one day when I was running outside, yelling after the boy next door, "Boyfriend! Hey, boyfriend!"
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"We're playing Boyfriend and Girlfriend."
She looked at me sternly. "Stop. You're not allowed to play Boyfriend and Girlfriend anymore" And thus, she put an end to my only elementary-school romance, much to my relief.
Based on these early experiences, I regarded sex as something clumsy and secretive, an impression which was only augmented by the mandatory Sex Ed classes in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. We were treated to drawings of the same bisected sexual organs, took quizzes on male and female anatomy, and were subjected to graphic movies about childbirth and the clinical symptoms of STDs. It was enough to scare me off the business altogether.
This could be why my first real crush was on the seemingly asexual Michael Jackson. Taking a cue from my worldly friend, I pasted a photo of him on my bedroom mirror, kissing it every night before bed. In those days, I closed all my diary entries with "I love you, Michael!" Ours would be a chaste sort of love, composed solely of music and holding hands, without all the ick.
In the coming years, I would learn that not everything dealing with the body was shameful and icky. I was lucky enough, for example, to befriend a dorm mate who talked frankly about sex, and bemused by my prudishness, gently encouraged me to do likewise. She became a close friend and confidant, and we hugged with great bear hugs every time we met and parted.
The summer of my freshman year of college, I was a counselor in a church camp. The female counselors made a pact in late July to meet at the pool early Sunday morning, before the next batch of campers would arrive. The lifeguard brought her key and opened the gates, and laughing like wood nymphs, we stripped off our clothes and hopped into the pool, even played a little nude volleyball.
I'd been naked in front of a group of people before, in gym class. But we'd always aimed to stay naked for the lowest possible amount of time. I'd been told that it was the same in boys' gym classes. My brother told me that any boy who took his time dressing was accused of wanting people to look.
Here, in the crystal clear water, we were gloriously languorous, gliding through in the pinkish early morning light, beautiful, all of us, from the slim nature director to the most bountiful Raphaelite counselor. We were mermaids, naiads. Free and comfortable with ourselves.
Several years later, in my hippie days, I attended a hippie gathering in a national forest. Here, nudity abounded. Some women walked around topless. Others, male and female, stripped down to their underwear, covered themselves in mud and traveled in packs, known collectively as The Mud People. I braved the swimming hole, even though everyone was skinny dipping. Hippies don't usually have bathing suits, and if clothing is required, most hippie sisters would rather wade into a state park in their peasant skirts and halter tops, laughing as the fabric floats up around them.
Unlike the pool at the church camp, this pond was cloudy, having been kicked up by all the people. When I took my glasses off, I couldn't see much, but I wasn't concerned. The calm, happy voices around me let me feel that this was natural. I had no reason to be ashamed, no reason to hide.
As I floated in the muddy water, my mind opened like a lotus. I finally began to do what people had been trying to tell me for ages: Relax. That lesson would stay with me later as I explored new relationships. After learning to accept my body, to accept human nature, learning to accept sexuality was, well, natural.
That growth continues, in slow, unexpected steps. This past Thanksgiving, I was watching Tropic Thunder with my dad, my husband, my sister and her husband. We had the subtitles on, because we had the sound turned down in order not to wake my brother's sleeping family. So there was no hiding from the words on the screen, some of which are quite colorful. Sitting next to my father, for the first time in ages, when my dad laughed at a crude joke, I didn't feel like hiding my head under a pillow.
This doesn't mean, though, that I'm ready to admit that my parents had a regular sex life. I'll cherish that belief, like Santa Claus, till the end of my days.