Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shame as a Driving Force

Shame -- and not mere teen aged awkwardness around the opposite sex -- had the most corrosive effect on my self-confidence. The seeds of this psychic disability were planted around the end of fifth grade, when I was about 10. (That's my fifth grade class picture above. My good friend Dave Moretti is in the third row up, second from the left.)

At the beginning of fifth grade, I had my first girlfriend. Her name was Carol (first row, third from the right; I'm in the same row at the right end). She passed me a note in class asking me if I would "go" with her. Not knowing what this entailed, I said, sure. As it turned out, for the remainder of the school year, I was Carol's staunch defender at four square -- if anyone got Carol out, I got them out. I also found out early that relationships entailed gifts. I had heard that Carol was a tennis player, so with my dad's help I bought her a tennis outfit for her birthday. Before Carol's birthday, I told Dave about the gift. He swore not to tell her, but then told her anyway, which lead to a temporary rift between us.

I rarely saw Carol outside of school, however. In fact, I remember only one such occasion. We were alone outside her house in the afternoon and the unspoken question -- on both our minds, I think -- was whether or not we would kiss. We never did. The four-square relationship ended at the close of fifth grade. The next year, I moved to my dad's house and went to another school.

That summer however -- the summer between fifth and sixth grade -- would be eventful in a negative way. Because my parents had divorced just a few years earlier, neither my mom nor my dad paid much attention to where I was or what I was doing in the two or three hours between the end of school each day and the time either of them was off work.

Possibly because of the temporary rift between us, I wasn't spending much time with Dave and instead was hanging out with a couple of other kids who themselves were not supervised. We engaged in a lot of shenanigans, including some low level vandalizing of property, throwing rocks at cars -- you know, just doing what unsupervised kids will do: get into trouble. At one point, however, the other boys began expressing interest in each other's bodies.

In retrospect, our activities didn't include anything too disturbing, but even now -- some 32 years later -- I feel some emotional discomfort thinking about it. "It" being daring each other to get naked or to fondle one another. With time, I've come to realize that the term "boys will be boys" probably covers this kind of experimentation. And while I now suspect that such behavior between young boys is more common than I had once imagined, at the time it was happening I felt very self conscious about it all, and later, downright frightened.

I was frightened that someone -- anyone -- might find out about it. As I moved into sixth and then seventh grade, it seemed my sense of shame over these incidents grew exponentially. I was desperately afraid of being labelled a queer, though I hardly knew what the term meant. (As I look back at it now, the picture on the right also from fifth grade is the last truly happy smile photographed of me until my graduation from high school some years away.)

Through junior high school shame drove me to put as much psychological distance between those early experiences and myself as I could. In large part, that's why I drove myself so hard in sports; why I fought so often; why getting drunk and high was so comforting. That's why having a girlfriend was so important to me, and so magical. A girlfriend was like an elixir.

I don't even remember how I met the first girl I kissed. Her name was Jackie and we were both in the seventh grade. She let me know somehow -- probably through one of her friends, which seemed to be the standard operating procedure -- that she liked me, so I walked her part way home after school. We had a real live kiss, tongue and all, for a few minutes and that was it. She told me she was moving away the very next day!

The next year, I had a true girlfriend -- Chrissy. That relationship started as effortlessly (for me anyway) as the last one did. I was bent over a drinking fountain after football practice and some girl I had never met walked by and pinched my butt. The next day, Chrissy and I were "going around." We did so for the rest of the school year, some seven or eight months.

That very first day, Chrissy asked me to go home with her after school. We rode the 27 bus from Union Junior High School to her house a few miles away. Chrissy's sister, Cathy (they were identical twins), and her new boyfriend Roger (one of my football buddies) also came along. To my surprise, the girls' mother greeted us all with a warm smile as we got to their house.

After introductions were made, Chrissy announced that she and I were going to her room. I was kind of in shock. For all I remember now, her mother may have even said, "Okay, have fun!" In any event, we retired to Chrissy's room, where she put on the radio (KLOK, if memory serves) and we laid down together on her bed and made out for close to an hour. Then we stopped and went out to the kitchen, where Chrissy's mom served us -- I kid you not -- milk and cookies.

After our snack, we retired once more to Chrissy's room for another hour or so, and then I returned home by bus. I was never a big milk drinker, but to this day I remember the strange and somehow wonderful taste of making out with Chrissy after milk and cookies. Chrissy and I would carry on this routine for pretty much the rest of the school year, and then I broke up with her.

On the surface, the routine got old and I wanted to hang out with my friends. But the real problem was, I was afraid and unsure of how to "move forward" in our relationship. I suppose, had I had the nerve, Chrissy and I could have had sex. I didn't have the nerve, though.

Chrissy was wonderful. It was just a matter of weeks before I realized my mistake. Just a year or so later, when we were in high school, I passed her as I was on my way out to smoke a joint in the school's parking lot. She said hello and I took the opportunity to ask her for some matches, which she pulled out of her purse. I thanked her and went on my way. As I walked on, I put the matchbook to my nose and it smelled just like Chrissy -- all those sweet memories poured into me as if from nowhere. Magical.

Note on this last picture: That's me in eighth grade at the time I was going around with Chrissy, though the girl in the picture is named Coby, one of the popular cheerleaders at Union Jr. High school. We sat next to each other in some class that year and somehow she came to like my smile. She lobbied her friends on my behalf and thus we were voted the "nicest smile." We never went out together.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know from experience most girls first kiss is with another girl and some friends have shared raunchy details from when they were young, experimenting with fiends. I think it is all pretty standard. I don't know what boys get up to but i am guessing it is probably common. Certainly nothing to feel ashamed of! If only we could find that out sooner...