The seventh grade was a frightening new world filled with children who behaved with the abandon of wild animals. My father dropped me off in the school parking lot. I rode in the frontseat with my mother in the back. After I got out, my father would pull away with her looking out the window. Other kids asked me about it. They thought it was funny that he made her ride in the back like a dog. Not knowing what else to say, I just told them she liked it back there. He drove her to work at the nursing home after that. We only had one car. I think it pissed him off to chauffeur us around.
The children congregated outside waiting for the bell. There were always a few older kids who smoked across the street. Fights got to be a usual thing in the mornings. Some good blows would be exchanged before the assistant principal rushed in to break it up.
I did my best to navigate the hallways, but sometimes my anxiety short-circuited my intellect and I would get lost. I liked to pick out someone who was going to be in my next class to follow. The concrete walls were a sea-green color. Kids would mill in front of the lockers, waiting until the last possible moment to go inside the classrooms. The din of their conversations was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone. I just sat there staring at a roomful of empty desks, glancing up every so often at the minute hand of the clock that stubbornly refused to move.
I did enjoy science class. The teacher was good and there were many pretty girls. I liked to admire them from afar, watching the more aggressive boys flirt with them and pull on their hair. I knew most of the answers and had been singled out as “a brain” for reciting them with what, looking back, must have been a bit too much alacrity. Everyone, it seemed, had a label–brains, jocks, geeks and burnouts. Some of the girls were considered sluts, while others were deemed pretty and popular. The rest were relegated to wallflower status. I am sure this system of classification existed outside my own mind, but I have no way of being sure. I may have been projecting my own insecurities onto others to a degree.
Something changed between elementary school and junior high and I’m certain that something was sex. It made everything painful and uncomfortable. Our bodies were changing so much then. I was growing out of my pants and my feet seemed several sizes too big. I used to try and hide them under the desk in front of me. I worried that my dick was too small. I had a late-summer birthday, so I was a year younger than most of my peers. My penis was stubby and bashful with nary a hair to garnish it. Stories about who had done what with whom spread through the school like brushfire. It was odd, but if what the boys whispered was to be believed, the popular girls were bigger sluts than the sluts. It was the same with the boys, I suppose, although they were not burdened with that pejorative. It seemed that a young person’s status was somehow tied to their level of sexual activity. A riot practically ensued when a rumor spread that Cindy Gullickson was going to blow Tony Craft in the parking lot. It was all beyond me. I could only take a voyeuristic pleasure in the stories the boys traded, staring at the girls in class and imagining what they looked like naked.
Gym class was a special kind of torture. Inside the locker room, I felt like an unfortunate juvenile-offender forced into an adult facility. Showers were mandatory. Mr. Reeves, the health and P.E. teacher, was passionate about hygiene. He bragged about taking four or five showers a day. He taught us about deodorant. I don’t think anyone really wanted to shower. Some probably minded it more than others. There were always a couple of kids who came in with their gym uniforms on under their clothes. They hid in a corner thinking they could just put their clothes back on over the top of them. Mr. Reeves could sniff them out. We could hear him back there hounding them. It was shameful really. Sometimes they cried. They would march out with pouty faces and towels held in from of their privates. Mr. Reeves followed behind sternly goading them on. There was nothing more essential, it seemed, to the development of our future manhood than to strip ourselves naked and parade ourselves before each other. Frankly, it made me want to die. But like anything else you got used to it.
On the other end of the development spectrum were the burnout kids. They had all flunked several grades and belonged in high school. They seemed to enjoy strutting naked in front of us with their man-bodies. These were the same kids who always got into fights before and after school. They were total scumbags, but they had this vanity about them like they were hot shit. Two of them in my gym class got into a rivalry about their hickeys. They were always bragging about how good their girlfriends were in bed, displaying their necks as evidence. The next week, they showed up with ugly bruises spotted all over their bodies. Mr. Reeves went berserk and tried without success to have them thrown out of school. I didn’t get it. Why would anyone want to be bruised? Still it fascinated me how a pair of lips could even do such a thing. I used to try on my own arm but could never accomplish anything.
Mr. Reeves was rumored to keep a bottle in his desk. There was an office inside the locker room and sometimes he would come out looking haggard with an imprint of a couch cushion on his face. He had a thick beard and looked like Captain Haddock from the Tintin comics. Mr. Reeves always made us run around the track outside at the start of class, even in January. We weren’t allowed to wear sweatshirts, just our gym uniforms that consisted of royal-blue short-shorts and T-shirts that always had that lingering smell of B.O. even if they had just been washed. We would stand there shivering and goose-pimpled while Mr. Reeves rambled on about the finer points of whatever gladiatorial sport we happened to be engaging in that day. I felt so exposed in that cold gym under those florescent lights–pale and skinny with knobby knees. But I never felt alone in my suffering. Not even the girls looked good in those uniforms, except maybe for Cindy Gullickson. One day she showed up in these ridiculously oversized shorts. Mr. Reeves remarked, “Looks like there’s room enough for two in there.” Then he arched a hairy eyebrow. Cindy Gullickson just giggled knowingly.
I don’t know when exactly puberty happened. I can remember being frustrated with the lack of progress down there and then one morning I looked down at a full bush. It was very sudden. I masturbated all the time and struggled to keep my boners down in class. I still felt behind and inadequate. It was if my newfound development was even more shameful than my previous lack of it. In the eighth grade, I became the subject of a rumor myself. It came to me that Jennifer Monroe had penned the words “I love Justin Florey” on the leg of her jeans inside the shape of a heart. I turned crimson upon hearing the news. We had become friendly in class, sharing bits and pieces about ourselves. I liked her, but I worried about what others thought. She had confided how she sometimes had sex with her twenty-something neighbor inside her basement. Never having come close to such an act, her experience was intimidating to me. She wore heavy eye makeup and extremely tight jeans. My head spun with the possibilities and I fretted how I would even get over to her house without a car. One of my classmates sagely advised, “Jennifer Monroe is a fuck machine. I’d get on that if I were you.” His characterization of her embarrassed me. As time passed I would view it as an opportunity missed, but at that moment I just didn’t know what to do with a “fuck machine.”
We were all struggling to hide ourselves somewhere within that range of normal, but none of us had any idea what that meant. All we had was television shows to guide us–Family Ties and the like. One evening I stayed up late watching The Tonight Show with my father. He was drinking and, as he so often did, he was using me as a sounding board for one of his rants. His face was red and creased. I sat on the floor near him. Johnny Carson was dressed in a plaid suit delivering his monologue with one hand in his pocket. It was all very awkward and unfunny with Ed chiming in from offstage.
“This guy is a rich asshole with his own TV show,” proclaimed my father, “but he’s got nothing between his legs. No dick whatsoever. Look at him, the way he’s standing. It’s pathetic!”
I listened to my father continue for a bit then excused myself and went to bed. The things my father said were shaming to me and made me want to get as far away from my parents as possible. My father paced and went on laughing jags. He was impossible to reach, cocooned in paranoia and insecurity. I thought about Johnny Carson as I lay in the darkness of my room. So what if my father was hung like a horse? A lot of good it did him. Meanwhile, Johnny was living on a beach in Malibu. It didn’t matter what you had between your legs, it was what you did with it. And right then I wasn’t doing much. But if Johnny could make it through junior high so could I. It could only get better, somehow.
(I’m grateful to all the readers. This is a chapter from my book, “City of Crows.” I’ll put it out there someday, somehow. Until then, I’ll keep throwing it out one stale crumb at a time.)