Warning: adult themes and content.
The other day, Jen asked me about the first time I ‘did it.’ There is something intrinsically sexual in that question. No one, when watching a plumber replace a section of pipe, says, “so, when was the first time you did it?” in reference to the plumbing project at hand. No student, while watching me teach, ever asked me, “when did you first do it” expecting a story about my initial appearance in front of a class. When people speak of ‘doing it’ for the first time, it is always sex.
And why not? We are curious about sex from the moment we first realize there are parts to our bodies. Babies touch those parts on themselves. Little children show those parts to their friends, and ask to see theirs, out of curiosity. With the same sense of wonder those children terrify mom or dad (oh, please let it be mom) with the question, “Where did I come from?” Peoria will seldom suffice for an answer. In every species of animal, I suspect, curiosity about sex comes with being alive.
When Jen asked when I first ‘did it,’ I steeled myself against revealing the one thing I had never told anyone; not her, not my ex, not even my brother—no one. Even as I write this I wonder how I will share it with my readers, mostly family, and my editor, an almost total stranger. Answering Jen’s question in person was somewhat cathartic; I’m not sure how it will work out in writing. Here goes.
My mother never uttered those terrible words, “You’ll go blind.” Ever. Fact is, neither Mom nor Pop ever initiated the traditional adolescent conversation about the proverbial birds and bees. I do, however, recall a time when I was about twelve that my father came into my room as I was putting on my pajamas. Very apologetically he asked if he could examine my... He didn’t finish the sentence, just pointed “down there.” I acquiesced, he looked, and then he pronounced me “normal.” I was glad to hear that, although I wasn’t quite sure what “normal” signified.
Some weeks later, I felt anything but normal. I awoke feeling really weird and pulled my pajama pants down to reveal a penis the color of an uncooked shrimp; you know, translucent and veiny. I was terrified. What was happening? Was it going to fall off?
I was also too mortified to tell anyone, especially Pop, who had so recently declared me normal. But, even in this most uncomfortable situation, turns out I was normal. Hindsight and a cooler head lead me to believe I had merely observed my first personal erection.
I processed normally into puberty, not really identifying the condition with my own body but experiencing its joys and challenges vicariously through the older guys in the 93rd Street Gang. They were my instructors, my mentors, and my heroes. Through the two Billies plus Jerry and Toody and Kurt, I received top-notch sex education.
I learned about the basepaths of sex, first through home. However, the church taught me to take every pitch, hoping, at best, for a walk. I learned names and nicknames and euphemisms for every body part remotely related to procreation or pleasure. I got them confused and really didn’t learn even the basics until I read a great little how-to book in Bible college, called, deceptively, Sex Is Not Sinful?. In his vain attempt to keep me from having premarital relations, the author armed me with all I needed to be dangerous.
Wait! I don’t want to reach the climax of this chapter too soon. Let’s backtrack. One aspect of my education began long before college. It was unexpected, pleasurable, and, of course, completely normal (although I didn’t know it at the time), which brings me to the Sunday New York Times.
We had a full weekly subscription to the New York Daily News, the wonderful rag that bordered on tabloid but contained enough hard news and erudite commentary to be a legitimate news source. Pop took the Sunday New York Times because he loved a challenge, and the greatest challenge he could think of was the legendary New York Times Sunday Double Crostic, his favorite puzzle. I cared only about the comics, of which the News had a dozen pages and the Times had none. Up until I was thirteen, I felt cheated by the Times because of that. What was the point of a ten-pound newspaper if it didn’t have Terry and the Pirates or Blondie?
Somewhere in my fourteenth year I discovered the value of the Sunday Times.
In lieu of comics, the Sunday Times had a most impressive magazine; a colorful section of local news and ads filled with photographs: the rotogravure. I suppose it contained well-written prose, though perhaps not as well-written as that within the Book Review section—another whole magazine—but, like any pubescent boy stumbling upon a Playboy magazine, the prose was not the main attraction. For me it was the fashion ads. New York fashion ads in the 1960s were filled with the latest creations by Pierre Cardin, Mary Quant, and my personal favorite, André Courrèges. And the models who wore them in the photos wore them perfectly. My God those models were beautiful. They were all the inspiration I needed to do it for that historic “first time.”
One Sunday morning, I was sitting in the living room perusing the Times magazine while waiting for Mom and Pop to get ready so we could all walk to Grace Church. I was fully dressed for the service. It must have been winter because I was wearing corduroy pants in a kind of green khaki color. They were ugly and way too loose-fitting. Funny the things you remember.
I had been admiring the models in the ads from afar when I turned the page and was stopped cold by the cutest little black dress and its inhabitant. I can’t ever recall seeing someone so absolutely stunning. With no other recourse available, I took matters into my own hand. Corduroys on, I touched a part of me that was suddenly larger and firmer than it had been a minute ago. Then I slid it eastward just a bit. Then westward. Yes, I remember. The chair was red and it faced north.
Within seconds the woman in the little black dress had transported me into a bliss I had never known. Eastward, westward a few more times and I could hold it in no longer—literally. Something for which I had neither name nor explanation gushed from deep within me and smack into the corduroys.
At first I thought I’d peed myself. Then I realized there would have been a spreading stain if I had. No, this felt different.
I repaired to the bathroom to assess the damage. We never went to another room in my house; we always repaired to them for some reason. So I repaired to the bath. There I discovered a gel-like substance clinging to the front of the crotch inside my pants. It cleaned up with remarkable ease, but the water I used to get out the small stain was going to take a few minutes to dry. I prayed my parents would be late for Sunday school as usual. They were. Now I had to live with my secret.
I didn’t live with the secret for long. That is, I kept it as a secret for a long time, but I didn’t live too long before I “did it” again. It was probably the following Sunday, but I was better prepared.
This time I waited until afternoon for what I hoped would happen to happen. And I took precautions. I excused myself from watching whatever sporting event was being televised, which separated me from Pop’s potential discovery. Mom was always busy with something on Sunday afternoons, so I excused myself from her as well. Then, with the comics and magazine from the Daily News, and the rotogravure from the Times, under my arm, I repaired to the upstairs bedroom to “read” for a while.
I got a lot of reading done on Sunday afternoons for the next couple of years. Funny thing was, the upstairs room, the only room up there not part of Isaac’s domain, was Mom and Pop’s bedroom. They never let on what I’m sure they knew after a few weeks. And they never found the stash of fashion ads that was growing under their wardrobe. Or maybe they did and didn’t know how to confront me, figuring it was only normal.
Eventually, my secret came out in a most embarrassing manner, and yet tempered by Pop’s gentle ways.
One afternoon I was lying on the bed in my room—ground floor, front of the house. I might have been reading From Russia with Love, having recently discovered Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. They were incredibly stimulating even without pictures. I got so worked up by the vivid sexual images—the Fleming phrase “long, slow love in a narrow berth” still gives me tingles—that I forgot my location. I didn’t even hear Pop open the gate and walk past my window.
A little while later, Pop called me for dinner. He sat on the edge of my bed and very matter-of-factly said, “I saw you in the window a few minutes ago. There’s nothing wrong with what you were doing, but if I could see you, then somebody else might. Keep the shades down in the future, please.”
And that was that. In one short paragraph Pop dismantled the entire fundamentalist anti-masturbation narrative and saved me future embarrassment. He was my new hero.
Of course, we all have that other first time. Guys generally make it up. We don’t all run around like feral cats making meaningless conquest after meaningless conquest. Okay, most don’t, and the rest lie about it. But there’s always a first time.
I didn’t date much, hardly at all in high school. I was cadaverously skinny, unshakably self-defined ugly, and painfully shy. I had crushes I wouldn’t dare talk to, and lovers so secret they never knew. Then I hit Bible college.
Bible colleges exist to bring couples together by forcing them apart. You’d think folks who take the forbidden fruit story literally would learn a lesson from it. Nope. They continually forbid, or severely restrict, dating, while simultaneously telling 18-22 year-olds they need to find God’s one perfect choice for a mate. It’s a recipe for broken hearts, unsafe sex, lightning—if not shotgun—weddings, and bewildering divorces. Been there. Done that. Later chapter.
But there’s always a first time.
Yes, I was in college, but I had been in an on-again off-again relationship since my junior year in high school. I lived in Pennsylvania. She lived far away in another state. The whole thing was doomed from the start, and it was beautiful.
Meanwhile, after seeing each other occasionally and writing a lot of real snail mail letters, we spent a few days together at my parents’ house. The first night there we went out for hot fudge sundaes. They were like foreplay for her. I’ll never understand that, but it was also beautiful.
What happened when we got home was somewhat less than beautiful. With runners at all the bases we—I think it was we; she seemed to know what she was doing, I sure didn’t—tried for a grand slam. And like a walk-off home run, it was quick and it ended the game. Okay, the game went on a couple more innings, but it only got a little better. Then it was over. She went home. We never wrote again. We both married other people.
Harry Chapin wrote a song called Manhood just four years after that week at Mom and Pop’s home in Pennsylvania. One line sums up my first, second, and third times:
Manhood means that you should
Get someone else
I hope somewhere along the way I took that to heart. There’s always a first time.
Who’s your favorite Batman? Christian Bale? Ben Affleck? Michael Keaton? Adam West? Mine is Eddie Gentile. You’ll see why in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.