I learned about the birds and the bees in third grade, the day that my best friend Teresa walked up to me at recess and announced, "Wanna know how babies are made?"
Well, of course I did.
A gleam in her eye, Teresa took me behind the scrubby forsythias that grew along the fence at the edge of the tiny playground. In their shade, our little sneakers kicking up whirlwinds of dirt, she made me lean forward and listen to the details through cupped fingers. "A mommy and a daddy go into the little boy's room, then they drop down their pants and show each other their hineys." That was the word she used. Hiney. I'd never heard it before. It sounded exotic, some undiscovered land just off the coast of me. My ignorance scandalized her even further. She explained the term, and then proceeded. "Then they rub their hineys together! And a baby comes out."
I blinked, dubious. She swore up and down that she was telling me the truth, and then before I could ask any questions, ran off to spread her information to the next victim. I remember pondering the scenario all that afternoon during fractions. If anything, Teresa's news made me more curious. Why, I remember thinking, did the mommy and the daddy have to go to the little boy's room? Why not a girl's room? Why did it have to be a public restroom at all? What if they lived in the country, where public facilities were few and far between? What if someone walked in? It sounded awful.
About the hineys, however, I didn't doubt Teresa. She was the sister of a future famous rock star, and until then her credentials had been impeccable.
"So," I told my mother when I got home that day, as I pulled some chocolate chip cookies from a Tupperware container. "I learned how babies were made, today."
When my mother wasn't teaching, she had three favorite pastimes: college basketball, murder mysteries, and crossword puzzles. That afternoon she was sitting at the rickety kitchen table with a cigarette in her left hand and a Ngaio Marsh in her right. She maintained a level expression while smoke curlicued from the corners of her mouth. "How?"
I gave her the nitty-gritty. She listened with a stone face that would have rivaled anything erected by the Easter Islanders, a long and brittle ash drooping from the end of her cigarette. "Good god," she said at last. Then she stubbed out the cigarette, stood up, and rapidly went to shut the doors between the kitchen and the living and dining rooms. Once satisfied that she'd created a cone of silence, she cleared her throat and said, "Pull up a chair, kid."
When I went to school the next day, it was with a much deeper, accurate, and scientific understanding of the human reproductive process than Teresa's parents apparently taught her. The problem was that my gospel arrived so late in the game that it was apocrypha; Teresa's had been such a stunning development in the third grade mentality that anything I had to say sounded like the knockoff philosophy of a jealous rival—I was the Treet to her Spam, the Hydrox to her Oreo.
But the upshot of the Teresa incident was that my parents decided it was time for me to get more than just the most basic of outlines of the ins and outs, as it were, of sexual intercourse. That's how I ended up, as I've mentioned before, with a collection of sex manuals at the tender age of nine or ten.
The first, and the most informative, was Dr. David Reuben's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). The book held an important place in popular culture for most of the nineteen-seventies. Legions of married couples clung to it, before The Joy of Sex made its way into their bedrooms instead. Woody Allen gently spoofed it in a film of the same title. The reason for its popularity is that EYWTKAS was pretty much a Sex for Dummies manual. It started with the very basics—the reproductive organs, what they looked like, and how they worked, and how they fit together.
Apparently I was quite the little dummy back then, because these opening chapters were a mystery to me. Part of the problem was that although I knew the proper terms for the male and female anatomy (we were not a family that used words like 'pee-pee' or 'cookie'), I had absolutely no conception of how they were supposed to be spelled. I assumed that penis was supposed to have a double-E in there, somewhere. And the female organ? My childlike mind thought it had a J or at least a nice ZH in its middle. Something soft and sweet, like the organ itself. Not the hard G that appears in the the actual word.
So for several days I read and re-read the anatomy chapters, mystified what this odd-sounding pen-is (the word I kept reading in the book I was thinking rhymed with tennis) and the harsh-sounding vagina (which I mentally rhymed with beginnah) might be.
When I made the connection between the printed words and the terms with which I grew up, it was a real Helen Keller moment. In the movie of my life, some ten-year-old is going to win an Oscar stumbling around with his hands open, excitedly shouting "VAGINA! VAGINA!" instead of wah-wah!
Subsequent chapters moved on through pregnancy and childbirth. Once the very basics had been laid out, the book started to go into frills. Impotency. S&M. Homosexuality. Prostitution. The book's structure was something like a FAQ, with the doctor authoritatively responding to what he seemed to assume were common questions that the average person would have about sexuality.
Only wow, some of the misconceptions I picked up from the book. Since the other sex manuals my parents assigned me to read were quaint and euphemism-filled marriage manuals from the nineteen-fifties (the only good sex tip I got from them was that the husband loves it when a wife licks the palm of her hand and rubs it hard over the tip of the glans . . . to which the only thing I can say is ouch, motherfucker!), I had to assume that EYWTKAS was the most up-to-date and accurate source of information.
Some of the things I learned as gospel from that august book:
All male homosexuals are sexual deviants who meet each other in bowling alley restrooms. It was like the Teresa story all over again. I somehow recognized part of myself in the chapter on homosexuality, though the doctor's assertion that all homosexuals were either super-butches or cross-dressing queens didn't ring true. I assumed with some despair that I'd never meet another homosexual, ever, because the only bowling alley in Richmond was way the hell on the other side of town.
All prostitutes are lesbians and all lesbians are prostitutes. I'm not really sure of the doctor's logic on this one, but apparently it was an impeccable product of its era. Which, I would like to remind everyone, was also era when people invented the Pet Rock and sat in bean bag chairs.
All kink and any fetish falls under sado-masochism. It doesn't matter how mild a fetish it is. If a man starts having a hankering for lacy women's underwear, sooner or later he's going to end trussed up with a leather-clad dominatrix whipping the fuck out of him. Oh, and every shoe store is stocked with perverted clerks who took the job so they could fondle their female customers' feet and then masturbate in the stock room.
Vaginas are dangerous, evil, penis-trapping devices. No lie. The book contained a horrifying chapter on frigidity that basically stated that sexually unresponsive women are pretty much bitches, and that if you try to fuck them, their vaginas will clamp down upon your hapless penis and refuse to let it go. Want to know why so many boys came out as gay in the years EYWTKAS came out? It's because we all read the chapter about the man whose limp penis was strangled in a woman's vagina with such force that the fucking fire department had to come out and separate them.
Dr. Reuben, on the whole, was a very strange man.