In Mrs. Shavers’ 7th grade English class, we studied vocabulary words on Thursdays by listening to a record with a man’s baritone voice repeating each word and definition over and over as we followed along in our workbooks. Fiasco… Fiasco… a complete, utter failure… Fiasco… The rain at the picnic made the party a fiasco… In between the speaker’s overly dramatic repetitions, Robert and I took turns echoing the word in a loud, imitative voice, fiasco-FIASCO-fiasco-FIASCO! until Mrs. Shavers, a tall and imposing African American woman with a distinct line of black fuzz on her upper lip, yanked the arm off the record causing an audible scratch. Standing with arms on hips, she glared at Robert and me in the uncomfortable silence. Then started the record over from the very beginning.
By the summer leading into freshman year, Robert and I were inseparable. Most days were spent at his parent’s lake house lounging on plastic rafts, skiing, or riding tandem on giant inner tubes as the boat’s wake drenched us with wave after wave of dirty brown water. We loved it all. Pink-faced and feeling that post-swimming fatigue, we sat on the dock listening to Air Supply and Donna Summer on Top 40 radio, swinging our white, wrinkly feet just above the lake's surface. In order to enjoy this summertime bliss, however, I had to earn the privilege first. No matter the day of the week or my intended plans, Mom prepared a list of daily chores thumbtacked to the bulletin board in our kitchen. Getting everything done early meant having carte blanche with the rest of my day and heading out to the lake house ranked at the top of my list. Having a mom who also liked to assign chores as a prerequisite to freedom, Robert knew the drill and we gladly pitched in whenever one or the other needed to “clean house.”
One lazy summer afternoon, as Robert and I listlessly worked our way through Mom's list—cleaning the bathroom mirrors, vacuuming, and drowning the wood furniture in Pledge—we came across her ample collection of Cosmopolitans. While arranging the magazines back onto the coffee table, angling them just so, the provocative covers with plunging necklines and long gold chains erotically placed in some girl’s mouth enticed us way more than House Beautiful or Better Homes & Gardens. And the words sex, pleasure, virgin, orgasm, and even Love Quiz beckoned a further look. Deciding a break was in order, we each selected a magazine and lay on our stomachs in the middle of the living room floor. A hushed quiet fell across the room, the only sound an occasional turning of pages.
Of course, this wasn’t my first foray into the libidinous world of Cosmopolitan. Before discovering my brother’s Penthouse magazines tucked under his mattress, it was Mother’s Cosmos that I’d thumbed through for the occasional titillation. Yes, there were scantily clad women throughout those pages but often they were accompanied by a hairy-chested male model in a fierce embrace. I’d gotten my first peek at Trisha Tackett’s house a few years earlier. Her older sister had a poster of Burt Reynolds where he’s in a football uniform, ball tucked under his arm, but he’s not wearing any pants. Posed with his back to the camera and looking over his shoulder, he’s got this shit-eating grin on his face like he’s coming in for a touchdown. But it wasn’t his face I kept staring at. It was his perfectly rounded, hairy butt that left me breathless, transfixed. Afraid I’d shown too much interest yet unable to move, I kept mumbling something like, “That’s… gross” until Trisha dragged me away to avoid being caught snooping in her sister’s bedroom.
After several minutes of rapt attention to our own magazines in hand, Robert nudged my elbow and pointed to a photograph taking up the entire page. It was a Jockey ad with Jim Palmer, a hairy baseball player standing with one foot up on a locker room bench and one hand on his hip.
“That turn you on any?” Robert asked in whispered sincerity.
I gave the image a quizzical once-over, more of a scientific evaluation. At least that was the surface of things. I knew this moment was a significant turning point. I could feel its weight. Not only in our friendship but in that sneaking suspicion that I was, indeed, this other. That I was different. And maybe Robert was different too.
“Sort-a” I responded, feigning disinterest.
Nonetheless, the seal was broken. We started flipping through page after page where men were pictured and asking one another, “Hey, that turn you on?” “Yeah.” What about this guy? The answer was always yeah or me too. I quickly ditched my current magazine for an old favorite and turned to the page where a bored, dark haired hunk in tight red briefs lounged on silk sheets, apparently waiting for his beautiful female lover who was thankfully out of the frame. The article’s title, That Oh-So-Capricious Male Sexual Appetite, had equal allure. I fell in love with the word “capricious” and more than any scratchy record, this was a sure way to increase my vocabulary. Subsequently, Robert and I raced to look up any and all words unfamiliar in these magazines to see what sexual denotations lay behind them: fellatio, circumcised, clitoris, ejaculate, labia, prostate, engorged. The floodgates of adolescent curiosity had been opened.
It quickly followed that these discussions inspired our own experimentation and for the rest of the summer, experiment we did. While there was great excitement beforehand, an enormous guilt and awkwardness followed, so we’d launch into discussions about past girlfriends or girlfriends-to-be, safely assuming this was just a phase, that it was just something we did to pass the time, that it “didn’t really count.” I remember how jealous either of us got when one started “going with” a girl in our circle of friends. There’d be parties hosted at Robert’s house where couples paired off and ended up sneaking into bedroom closets or out onto the dark patio. I once walked in on Robert and Lisa making out in the bathroom and felt the sharp sting of betrayal. But I didn’t know who to blame. I was mad at Lisa for taking away my best friend and mad at Robert for stealing away a girl I thought I liked. It was all very confusing.
For me the experimentation extended to making lists of guys at school that “turned me on.” I remember the thrill of simply writing their name down, recalling what they looked like and imagining them in a Burt Reynolds pose without any pants on or completely naked. I even went so far as taking the list with me into the shower and pasting it to the wall with soapy water and, as my brother had called it, “spanking the monkey” until the ink bled and I could no longer read the red-blurred names. In these and other times of desperate privacy, it never failed that I’d hear Mom hollering something the likes of Michael Waaaaaaaaaayne, get outta that bathroom and help momma find her _, which instantly obliterated the mood.
With high school just around the corner, Robert and I held the tacit fear that our experimentation would somehow be a scarlet letter for all to see. We shared a dark secret and the only thing to do was get as much distance from each other as possible. Our paths diverged irrevocably when Robert chose theatre and the smoking crowd while I chose Student Council and the preppy crowd. From then on, we barely spoke to or acknowledged one another. I’d occasionally heard “fag” whispered behind my back in the hallways, but when those whispers grew louder behind Robert’s, my silence was a loud condemnation that granted me temporary immunity. So I set out to build the perfect resume and establish a strong power-base in that oh-so-capricious world of high school cliques. I joined every club, ran for every office, and used any and every friendship in advancing my agenda to prove that I was good enough, that I wasn’t different, that I wasn’t like him.