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A tame, mild afternoon; a high and welcome sun. Birds lift and dive in bright blurs around me. Near St. Mary's Cemetery my car idles at a red light. Bored by the radio, I turn to stare out the window. A flurry of movement in the car next to mine catches my eye: two college-age young women sit in the front seat, and I can tell by their convulsive shoulders and the music blaring from the stereo that they're having a good time. Nothing about their appearance is remarkable—they look like denim-clad students I might have taught in class that morning. The girl in the passenger seat waves quickly for my attention, and as I stare she holds something up to her window. It looks like a gift card? I'm betrayed into thinking that there's nothing strange about this gesture, but as my eyes focus, I stare at a photo of a naked, spread-eagled woman, forcing two fingers into herself in harsh, pornographic delight. The girls in the car shriek with laughter and bounce in their seats, and the card winks in the sunlight. The cardholding girl turns back to me and fixes her gaze on mine, barely containing wicked delight. The mutually exclusive zones of our cars afford her boldness, and she locks eyes with me and waits for my reaction with the card pressed luridly up against the window. I look away for a moment in warm embarrassment and then, possessed by a kind of absurd machismo, look back and give her a half-smile and an unsteady OK sign, as if to say, Whatever. How do I respond to this? To vulva at high noon? In a second the light will change and the girls will roar off—I'll hear their laughter over the engine and tires. Before I drive through the light I'll look around involuntarily, feeling as if I've been caught at something rank. There, a few feet away on the curb, a young mother in cloddish, pink and white striped shorts pushes her stroller in front of her, another young child trudging by her feet. Their backs are to me and their heads are downcast. They are walking in the [End Page 84] general direction of the local public library, where a young boy can sit next to a young girl and, beneath the eyes of parents and friends and strangers, log in to Yahoo or Google and stare at photos and read stories and letters more sexually explicit than anything I could have ever hoped to encounter at the same age. As I drive away I will wonder on the girls in the car, on the young family walking the other way. What an absurd tableau.
Like all sinewy properties of memory, surging hormones are tied to a mess of images and stirring thoughts, a dank, dripping fistful. My carnal past: early, erotic longing for my sister blends with bewildering crushes and glimpses of panties on grade school classmates, learning masturbation after swimming in the neighbors' pool, coaxing my cold penis into the light of . . . well something that certainly felt like wisdom in the shivering bathroom off the hall from my parents' bedroom. The quietly loud transformation of the Washington Post Sunday magazine ads: sudden erotic artifacts on the kitchen table next to the bacon, eggs, and Montgomery Donuts purchased after mass. As with any kind of body knowledge, nascent sexuality coursed through me with little regard for reason or rationality, as compelling a part of our physical relationship with the world as bone marrow, as fluttering, tired eyes at midnight, as hunger pangs at the end of a long, chilly afternoon playing in the woods. Do you remember the first time you felt hungry? The first time you felt lust?
Whatever shady memories I have of reckoning with sex, the one explicit feeling I can remember is fear—of the unknown, of getting caught, of not being allowed to look...