I learned how to give a blowjob at ten. By eleven, I was an expert. No matter how many hours I spent in front of the TV with a worn Atari controller clutched in my hand, I could never locate Indiana Jones’ Ark of the Covenant. But I could suck one off like a sorority girl after too many upside-down margaritas.
He was a young 20-something, our trusted neighbor. His hair was long, his eyes warm and sad. Sometimes he and his roommate made dinner when Mom stayed late at work to balance the books. For my birthday, he bought Bob Seger’s “Nine Tonight” album and wrapped it with a blue bow – my favorite color. It was an extravagant gift, one my single mom couldn’t afford. But that boy surprised and delighted me. I played the record over, over, over on Mom’s RCA turntable. I memorized every lyric. Sometimes I stood on the coffee table and sang “Hollywood Nights” at the top of my lungs. My hairbrush was my microphone. I was good.
I’ve always found it difficult to say no. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, don’t want to disappoint. I over-commit and under-deliver. Yes, I’ll organize the preschool party. Yes, I’ll bake four dozen cookies for the Teacher Appreciation Luncheon. Yes, I’d love to take that freelance project. Yes, I’ll edit your manuscript. Yes, I’ll watch your kids.
(P.S. I don’t even like your kids.)
Yes is easier than no. Smooth sailing more enjoyable than whitecaps.
My young world was a wonderland of 1970s magic dressed in cut-off jeans. I explored overgrown cornfields, built forts with discarded lumber, beat all the neighborhood boys in sunset games of “Horse.” I hid myself in chicken wire basement storage bins so I could read uninterrupted, the chug of washing machines in the background, the scent of Downy dryer sheets floating on the hot air. I scribbled poems and short stories in my Strawberry Shortcake notebooks. I played 4-Square, SPUD, and Kick the Can until it was time for Kraft macaroni and cheese and a cold glass of 2% milk served on my TV tray, the one with the fold-out metal legs. I wore halter tops knotted around my freckled neck and smoked the butts of my mom’s discarded Merit Ultra Lights.
I gave myself the Sign of the Cross every time I walked into church, asked Jesus for forgiveness in the dark Confessional. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned. It’s been six days since my last Confession. I lied to my mom, tattled on my sister, and had impure thoughts.” I never named the act itself. It seemed an unsavory thing to discuss in a church. I knew He knew. I hoped He forgave. I listened to the nuns, readied my soul for the kingdom of heaven with Hail Marys and Acts of Contrition.
I rode my bike to the drugstore and bought Jolly Rancher sour apple sticks with the change I found under the couch cushions. I sucked their tips into sharp, dangerous points.
When I think about my childhood, I don’t first think about fellatio. In fact, I can barely recall the pungent scent of stale sweat, the smell of nervousness and sin. There was beer, and often, pot. He smoked the pot. I drank the beer. The smoky haze in the apartment was much more tolerable with an evenly matched fog in my head. Sometimes I drank enough to throw up. I did not understand my limits. He would wipe my face with a warm washcloth, would tune into “Laverne & Shirley” while I rested on the couch, the room swirling and spinning around me. “Schlemiel, Schlimazel. Hasenpfeffer Incorporated.” The couch was faded and worn and smelled slightly of mothballs and bacon. I sank into it, disappeared into the dingy plaid.
He loved me, this boy. He told me so every time.
I loved him back.
But most of all, I loved my mom. My hard-working, breathtaking, raven-haired hero.
Once I perfected the oral art form, it was easily transferable. I honed my skills on awkward freshmen with unskilled hands, high school quarterbacks and their cement abs, heavy-breathing frat boys, and strangers in bars. My lips were all-knowing, all-powerful.
I was invincible.
The decision to spit or swallow came later. In the beginning, it wasn’t a conscious choice, but a physical reaction. Later, I chose what I wanted.
Blowjobs as a metaphor for life.
When I was young, my mom had a recurrent dream. She spoke of it often until I could see it all play out in Technicolor in my own mind. “We all have bad dreams, Sweetie. Go back to sleep.” She fell through a thin layer of ice and was unable to find the hole that would provide oxygen and escape. Her graceful hands pounded at the frozen blue in slow motion, painted fingernails blood red beneath the murky waters, her mouth in the shape of an “O,” calling silently for help. My sister and I looked at her from above, paralyzed, unable to fathom how to save her. Sometimes, we didn’t even see her as we glided by, the blades on our ice skates, sharp and thin.
Life can be that way. The ones we love, struggling for breath, for a stronghold. And we, staring blindly at the battle happening beneath our feet, not understanding, not comprehending, until it is too late.
My four children are teenagers now. We have raised them to the best of our ability with love and laughter and balance. Every day, I send them out on to their personal tightropes, praying they keep their heads, that they navigate their air space expertly, that they arrive on the other side unharmed, unaffected. Winds threaten to topple them, birds distract, car horns startle. But they are strong and steady, my offspring. They stay the course. The best of humans do. One foot in front of the other. And then the next.
I cannot hold them forever. Their baby smells have morphed into a teenage cloud of heated funk. Their toenails are long, and their chins are greasy with pizza and hormones. They are blazing their own trails. They have been navigating for many years. I know most of their journey.
I do not know it all.
We all have secrets. Even my kids. Their kids will have secrets, too. My grandbabies.
In the big scheme of things, blowjobs aren’t so bad. They are not world hunger. They are not crushing poverty. They are not war. They are not natural disasters arriving unexpectedly in the night to steal those we love most. They are not genocide or debilitating disease or death.
But they are a private shame, a black mark on a soul that strived for Clorox white. They are a chip in a Rosary bead, the corner that catches the tip of your finger as it traces its prayerful path. They are a knowledge beyond accumulated years, a dicey book snuck from the bowels of the library’s adult section, a queasiness at the base of your belly that causes your hands to sweat and your head to swirl.
They are a crack on the windshield of a young life.
Of my young life.
In the course of days we’re granted, we get to choose some things while others are chosen for us. I did not choose my parents, but was lucky enough to land my witty, brilliant, beauty of a Mom. I did not choose the weight of a childhood filled with hand-me-downs and worn furniture, but I made those rough streets my own. I was Queen of the Apartments, Lord of the Dirty-Faced Children, Empress of the Latchkey Kids. My big sister, soft and kind and inclusive, was a blessing bestowed upon me. A lifetime later, I chose my gentle and faithful husband with his strong hands, his slow patience, and his loud laugh. My children, four gifts, four beloved treasures, a bounty I can never repay.
Every day, I choose what defines me. This childhood – with all its pain and promise – is part of me, but it is not me. The stain of its iniquities will not deem me unworthy nor doom me to a life of remorse and regret.
There was, after all, music. When Bob Seger sang, I felt free and strong and uninhibited.
“We’ve got tonight, Babe. Why don’t you stay?”