During the summer before I moved from junior high school to high school, I spent a month in Cozumel, Mexico scuba diving with a half dozen other teenagers whom I hadn’t previously met. The only adult supervision was provided by the scuba camp leader, Owen Lee (pictured, on the left). It was 1979.
Owen learned to dive in the 1950s and was the first American diver to be named to the crew of Jacques Cousteau’s team. (Today, Owen is the proprietor of the Las Gatas Beach Club.) Sometime later he retired to Zihuatanejo, Mexico where he leased some land and founded “Camp de Mar,” a scuba diving camp for teenagers. That’s where I was supposed to go -- Zihuatanejo -- but just before our trip, a local Mexican government official took a liking to Owen’s spread. So, at the last minute, Camp de Mar decamped for Cozumel.
Before the trip, my dad took me to meet Owen in San Francisco. The only thing I remember of the meeting was Owen’s warning about the strict marijuana laws in Mexico. Even a joint, he said, could get you jail time. So, alcohol it would be. On my unaccompanied flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, I ordered and received my first legal (at least on AeroMexico) cerveza: a Tecate, with salt and lime. I was 14. It was going to be a fun trip.
Once in Cozumel, we all dove by day and after dinner -- when Owen left us alone for the rest of the night -- we went clubbing and drank Cuba Libres. I think I quite literally threw up every single night I spent there that month. I was spending so much money on alcohol that after two weeks I had to wire my dad for more.
It was something I didn’t do on that trip, however, that in retrospect would have the greatest impact on the next decade or so of my life. I didn’t have sex with one of the girls at camp when the opportunity presented itself.
One night, shortly after getting back to my hotel room, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the camp girls standing there in a long t-shirt which just covered her underwear. We spent the next hour or so necking and nervously feeling each other up in my hotel room, but we never consummated the deal. She was 16, and I guess I had expected her to take the lead -- not an unreasonable expectation considering my age (two years younger) and her sudden appearance at my room that night. She didn’t take the lead though.
The next day, as we all lounged about the hotel pool, it was clear that all my camp-mates knew what had happened -- or what had not happened -- the night before. The girl -- I’ve forgotten her name -- was pissed off about it all and had been talking. Apparently, she thought that the reason I hadn’t slept with her was because I hadn’t wanted to. So, she went on the offensive and tried to bad mouth me to the others.
Perhaps because of the mix (four boys, two girls), her campaign against me was ineffectual and short lived. Amongst the guys, her effort probably boosted my stock and spared me the need to boast myself. Under the surface, however, I felt very insecure. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to have sex with her, but rather that I didn’t know how. Sure, I knew the mechanics; I knew the theory. But applying the theory -- that was something else altogether. I was scared.
Over the following year and a half, I’d have a few more intimate moments with different girls at high school or in the neighborhood, but it would be many years before I was to get a better shot at having sex than I had had that one night in a Cozumel hotel room when I was 14. Many times in the ensuing years I would look back to that night and wish I had been more confident. Had I been -- had I slept with that girl when I was 14 -- the act would have gone a long way towards removing the primary source of my personal insecurity. I would have entered high school the following fall with a completely different outlook on life.
Ironically, though, my “failure” to bed a 16 year old when I had had the chance -- and the resulting magnification of my personal unease -- would serve as the engine which would drive me to the zenith of the contemplative life. Looking back, it was largely a sense of shame, embarrassment, and insecurity about sex and sexuality that would prod me to renounce the “life of desire” once and for all just a couple of years later.
There was more to it, though, than just a schoolboy's natural reticence around the opposite sex.