“What psychic forces?” I asked dumbly, like I didn’t get that kind of lingo after listening to her for three years, and she said:
“Grief, guilt, sexual sadness, all those things we’ve been talking about. We’re going round in circles because you’re expecting me to sort things out for you. You’ve led me to believe you have some writing aptitude, Randall. Now I’d like you to use it on your own behalf.”
“But, doc,” I replied helplessly, knowing that June bristles at any reference to her academic credentials, “where would I start?”
“Start with sex,” she said so directly that I flinched. “In fact,” she continued with growing certainty, “let’s start with your sexual history, going all the way back, as early as you can remember having any sexual feeling or perception. You’re carrying a lot of sexual anxiety that you need to sort out. You need to know what’s past and what’s present, for one thing, and you don’t know that right now. It’s all happening at once in your head. So . . . Good. Let’s try that, all right?”
Instead of answering right away I looked at the top of June’s head, where her hair is both caramel and gray, and wondered why I felt like a twelve-year-old told to wash a heaping mountain of dishes from the grownups’ dinner party. I wanted to say, “That’s not fair!” Instead I whispered quizzically, “Let’s?”
So here I sit, facing the computer screen with the kind of foreboding I used to feel when facing inventory in my first store—only much worse. How does one inventory the contents of a personal Pandora’s box, after all? But I think I’m on to something already, this thing about the nature of sex. Maybe the whole problem of sex is nature itself!
Because the truth is that lowering my attention to the sexual territory of the body is like dropping out of human civilization, and down into the world of plants. Seeds, shoots, blooms, roots, juices—it’s all organic down there, raw and unsocialized. All our romantic ideals about sex are like flowers sliced at the stalk, prissily displayed rootless and truthless in cut-glass vases. The damp soil upon which real sex feeds is too, well, earthy for most people to contend with. And that’s why they’re never prepared for what happens next with sex.
IN THE year 1971—when I was in the sixth grade—I was certainly unprepared for what would happen next, but at least I could have pleaded ignorance. After all, what was about to happen was my very first sexual experience. It was subtle compared to adult situations, but oh-so-unsettling—and it set up my lifelong pattern of feeling behind the beat, always playing catch-up to females seemingly more in-the-know about sexual mysteries.
It was the year before, the fifth grade, when I first met girls who were smarter than I. This was a profound shock, but administered early enough in my life to allow me time to recover without developing macho defenses. (At least, I like to think I’ve recovered.) Intellectually, I was treading water already; I’d mastered the most difficult books in the school library the year before, and spent most of my time since gloating over effortless spelling bee victories and getting heavily into stamp collecting. Beyond a nerdy coterie of fellow philatelists, all male of course, I didn’t socialize much with my peers in our semi-rural Georgia neighborhood. To most of them, being bookish was tantamount to being Martian.
My professor father, a social climber at Emory, didn’t like my increasingly superior attitude toward education. He tightened the family budget sufficiently to send me to a private academy an hour’s commute away from home, on the other side of Atlanta. The change eventually cost my sister Carolyn, who was fifteen when I was twelve, her riding lessons.
But my father was academically biased. After all, Carolyn was a mediocre performer at school, and I was possibly an unrecognized genius moldering away in my room, plastering the four walls with hundreds of letterless envelopes bearing First Day of Issue cancellations. The blanketing effect of this decor frightened my mother, so she readily seconded my father’s decision to place me in a more challenging academic environment.
“Challenging” hardly did the place justice. At Country Day I was an ordinary middle-class scrabbler trying to solicit dollops of attention from “professional educators” (not mere teachers, mind you) more attuned to the well-oiled manners of the school’s Ivy League-bound majority. My first year there I floundered about in the panicky loneliness of feeling inferior, barely squeaking by with a B-minus average. My parents had to come in for a long conference to discuss “the most pragmatic course for Randall’s academic future,” to quote the principal’s condescending letter at year-end—the most pragmatic course turning out to be summer school that would “equalize my opportunities” with those of my more fortunate peers. That was when Carolyn had to say so-long to Mariah, her favorite at the stables, and take a couple of long walks with Mom in order to find a way to speak to me again.
But summer school didn’t bring me up to par; JoEllen Jones did. JoEllen Jones was a miracle delivered to me at Country Day in my second year. Like my father and mother, her parents were overextending themselves on behalf of her brilliance. She was a natural-born writer who had won an Atlanta Constitution essay contest for young people during that year I was being cut down to size in private school. (I remember looking forlornly at the essay contest rules in the paper, too deep in shock over a failed geometry test to imagine actually competing.) JoEllen’s piece had accidentally been transferred from the 9-12 age group into the high-schoolers’ competition, and she beat them all.
JoEllen was middle-class and lived on our side of town, but she came to Country Day as a minor celebrity. When our two sets of parents discovered in the first week of school that we lived only a few miles apart, they began taking us to school together in alternating family cars.
Suddenly I had an ally who was a star—and I pretty much hitched my wagon to her. JoEllen became my living, breathing crib sheet, my warm-blooded abacus, my arts and crafts muse. I shamelessly took advantage of her friendship in order to equalize my opportunities at Country Day. At that age, it wasn’t a scheme on my part—it just happened out of sheer necessity. But as JoEllen would tell me later in high school, we inadvertently struck a fair deal—because poor little JoEllen had no other friends. She had suffered socially at public school even worse than I, because little Southern girls were neither encouraged nor expected to be quite so frighteningly smart. Hence I was the first kid, male or female, to be her real true pal.
Actually, what JoEllen would tell me in high school was that she had loved me—desperately—way back in the sixth grade. Could that have been true? The notion of desperate love was only dawning on me at age sixteen, so it’s just as well that I was completely oblivious to it at age twelve. I was likewise oblivious to JoEllen’s precocious physical development until the very end of the sixth grade. What I mean is that she had noticeable breasts and very round hips at twelve years of age, and she already walked in a rumba-like fashion that would later make her the butt—so to speak—of crude jokes among our adolescent peers.
Anyway, back on the cusp of adolescence, I was getting along swimmingly at Country Day as my second year there came to an end, all thanks to JoEllen. I guess we were pipsqueak valedictorians, because we were chosen to present twin graduation speeches before an assembly of the entire school. JoEllen’s mom was a former actress—“a bit of a tart” in my mother’s stern appraisal—and she dressed up JoEllen that memorable day in a flaming red, low-cut party dress and patterned sheer stockings. (Perhaps I’m not recalling this with total accuracy, but the past I must deal with is the past I remember.)
SO OUT comes JoEllen, stage left, onto the purple velvet-draped Country Day auditorium stage, amidst a swell of admiring—or scandalized?—parental murmurs and some giggling among our peers. I was already standing on the other side of the stage, nervously running over the beginning of my three-minute oration in my head. I had learned in rehearsals that remembering the whole speech depended upon recalling the beginning. After the first thirty hellish seconds I was always okay.
But this was not another rehearsal. This was IT, a pass-fail test if ever there was one, and I felt weak-kneed, weak in the bladder, and far too weakly prepared for such a public demonstration of my savoir-faire. As the auditorium quieted and it became obvious that one of us on stage was supposed to do something, I desperately wished that I was back in my room poring over tiny, engraved squares of adhesive paper. In fact, I was so stage-struck that I wasn’t quite sure of where I was. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps if I shut my eyes tight enough, I could be magically transported to some other world, anywhere away from the awful test about to take place in this one.
Instead, by the grace of God, I cast a sidelong glance across the stage and saw JoEllen smiling ever so kindly at me. This reminded me that I was supposed to repeat my part of the oratorical duet JoEllen and I had been practicing in this very hall for weeks. Okay, I thought, I can do that. I turned away from JoEllen, my life-support system, and toward the soulless mike thrusting toward my face from atop its skinny silver spine, and bellowed the title of my speech:
“The Golden Opportunities of YOUTH!”
On the last, over-emphasized word my voice cracked for the first time ever—what a moment for puberty to announce its onset!—and something about the squeaky-booming timbre of my voice caused the PA system to have a major feedback crisis. A hair-raising mechanical howl went through the room, causing adults to cover their ears and a couple of infants to howl back, like little dogs, and causing Mrs. Smyth-Fifer, our amateur stage manager, to rush out and fumble with the microphone. I stared dumbly at her as she scurried back into the wings and frantically turned knobs on something back there. I kept staring until she turned her face toward me, half-obscured in the darkness of the wings, and theatrically flashed me a big “OK” sign with her right hand.
With fake professional aplomb, I turned back with a big smile to the audience—now edgy and justifiably fearful of what might next be done to them—and promptly forgot my speech.
Never before had I known that time could stop like that! . . . that a glacial eternity could interrupt the normal course of one’s life and bring the crushing sense of death—no, not death, but an endless dying—so terrifyingly near. Like an antediluvian fly snagged on a glob of tree sap, I felt irretrievably trapped in a gluey ether of stupidity. All I can remember from this public display of dumbness was fixing my eyes upon a thin Chinese gentleman in the front row of the audience and thinking, Who is that!? I couldn’t recall any Oriental classmates, and this fellow’s etched prominence among a sea of bemused Caucasian faces was clear evidence of a rip in the fabric of the universe, admitting an alien anomaly into this mundane Southern school auditorium.
Then I realized that this fellow’s face reminded me of Chiang Kai-shek on one of my stamps. I was mentally attempting to confirm this identification when JoEllen’s sweet voice broke the silence, filling the hall with light, order, and salvation:
“Never before have young people faced a future so bright with possibilities!”
I turned like a doll on a music box and looked at JoEllen as if she had just handed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich back at her house. “What?” I mouthed silently across the stage, desperately wanting to be at her side, and not only because I was in trouble. There was something odd, novel, and heated in the feeling, something that had slipped in through the new fracture in my voice. JoEllen grinned warmly but urgently at me and leaned closer into her microphone.
“Never . . . before . . . have . . . young . . .” she intoned patiently, as if she had taken on the task of teaching English to the toddlers in the audience.
It was my first line! In the same instant that I realized JoEllen was prompting me, I realized that she had probably memorized my entire speech along with hers, and would selflessly recite it and let me take the bows if a full-scale intervention proved necessary. I was so grateful for this rescue that tears sprang to my eyes as I picked up the latter half of my deathless opener—“future so bright with possibilities!”—and I have no doubt that I finished my speech in the most impassioned manner that a sixth-grader has ever delivered such a sentimental mash of parentally incited homilies.
JoEllen followed with a faultless delivery of her own address—“How Young Women Are Changing the World”—and the applause was so lengthy and deafening that Mrs. Smyth-Fifer broke into a wild antic of arm-waving in the wings, the message being that JoEllen and I should take a bow together.
I was slow on the uptake, so JoEllen came over, took me by the hand, and led me to center stage where I followed her lead of bending at the waist and bobbing up and down a few times.
It was during the downs of this up-and-down motion that I first noticed JoEllen’s shapely calves, sheer and shadowy in those grown-up stockings. Somehow it hit me that these sensual lengths of flesh were magically congruent—not to mention intimately connected—to the rest of her precocious form. This abrupt recognition of JoEllen’s physicality is what I consider to be my very first sexual initiation. That, and the sensation of a squishy electricity passing between our sweaty, hot little palms.
I wonder to this day what was going through JoEllen’s mind at that moment. I never did confess to her that I first lusted for her, inchoately to be sure, at that peak moment. I do know that my hand ached for the rest of the day, she had squeezed it so hard. Perhaps that’s because she really was in love with me already—being ahead of the curve on so many other counts—and somehow she also knew what was going to happen next. Because that near-apocalyptic, peculiarly sensual day was the last time I would see JoEllen for four years. Our two families went out to a festive Chinese dinner that night (I suspected the weird, lingering influence of Chiang Kai-shek), and agreed that JoEllen and I should remain the best of friends over the summer. It’s even possible that our folks were trying to set us up for the future—what a dream couple, after all!
But the very next day my father received the crushing news that he was not going to get tenure at Emory. In a huff he quit the University entirely, spending the next several weeks initiating his drinking problem. Private school was off, our summer vacation was off, my mother’s long-standing art lessons were off. The whole Kendricks family sank into an ugly funk, with the notable exception of yours truly. For all I could think was that I could spend the rest of my life gleefully collecting First Days, with only the minor interruptions of high school and college somewhere off in the vague future. Plus: I would be free of the intense, mixed-up feelings I was having about JoEllen Jones.
Because along with my novel lust, I felt a disturbing resentment of my girl savior, who was so smart and collected that she remembered my speech in front of the whole school when I couldn’t. With everything else that was going on, I guess that’s why I never called her again. JoEllen would tell me later that she called several times in the week following our speeches, but I neatly avoided picking up the phone. My dad was too drunk to answer, and Carolyn seldom took messages for anyone, especially not her smart-ass little brother. My mother did call me to the phone once. My response was to light out the front door for the woods, the only haven that felt safer than the little world of my room.
NEEDLESS to say I was stunned when, on the first day of high school four years later, I nearly ran over JoEllen Jones while hustling to my orientation class.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted artlessly, at which JoEllen blushed and demurely lowered her eyes to the floor of the crowded, noisy hallway.
“Hi, Randall,” she said softly.
I felt like a total jerk. “Yeah, hi, I mean.”
“My dad died this summer,” JoEllen revealed with adult seriousness, raising and locking her large, deep green eyes onto mine. “I had a scholarship to a prep school in Massachusetts, but . . .”
“Oh, wow,” I interjected, trying to sound suitably mournful but feeling up to my knees in fifteen-year-old shallowness.
“. . . my mom needs me at home for a while,” JoEllen finished, her eyes tearing slightly. Then, at completely the wrong moment, I noticed that she was drop-dead gorgeous, with the sixth-grade promises of her womanly sensuality already fulfilled. Her face was round and intelligently angelic, lit with a healthy glow, and skillfully highlighted with make-up that I naively took to be her natural colors. Scanning down her body with doubtless obviousness, I noticed that JoEllen’s breasts seemed ready to emerge at any moment through the violently stretched fabric of a white cotton turtleneck. Daringly enough for a Georgia high school sophomore, she was wearing very tight jeans with an ov