Reading Time: 5 minutes
"Sex Ed" originally appeared in Issue 15 of Tahoma Literary Review. When I initially read this essay, I was impressed with the author's ability to convey the voice of her childhood self. I also felt as if the opening paragraph could serve as a micro-essay unto itself. Coming of age is a scary proposition. Daddy may not have been listening to you then, Mattie Wheeler, but we are now.
If Daddy listened, he would put down his paper. He would turn off the TV. He would look me in the eye. He would take off his reading glasses. He would not joke. He would not say, "For crying out loud." He would say, "What is it, Tilda?" And his voice would not be impatient. It would be caring. And if I said, “Nothing," he would say, "No. Tell me." He would know to ask, to keep asking. And then I could tell him. I could ask him. About boys. About rules. About Ted Sayer. About the poker game. About the "showing" trades, the "touching" trades. But it doesn't matter. I can't tell him. He won't listen. I just stand there.
Megan’s brother, Ted, smiled at us when Mr. and Mrs. Sayer went off to their dinner date. “You want to play poker, Meg?”
Megan swung my arm. "Sure!"
Ted had the nicest smile, and he was tall and blond and beautiful. I was so jealous of Megan having such a perfect brother, I could melt with it. My heart was melting now, except, "I don't know how to play," I said.
Ted said, "We'll teach you, Tilda. It'll be fun."
It turned out poker wasn’t all that different from gin rummy, except instead of playing for points, you played to keep on your clothes.
“We’ll be a team,” Megan said. “Every time we win, Ted has to take off a piece of clothing. If we lose, we each have to take off something.” Megan took me into her bedroom to dress up. We put on necklaces and snapped barrettes into our hair. She had a lot of stuff. I draped a scarf around my neck and she put on a cardigan, even though it was pretty hot.
Ted complained mightily when he saw what we were wearing, but he grinned too, so I knew it was okay. The first thing he lost was a shoelace in his sneakers. This was funny, taking off my horse ring at one turn, then squeezing the penny out of my loafer at another.
Then Ted was down to his underpants, and it wasn’t so funny any more. “I guess you two are going to win,” he said.
But we didn’t win any more hands. Even when Megan and I had two jacks, Ted had three threes. We ran out of little things to take off—we too were down to undershirt and panties.
We lost another hand. “It’s not fair,” Megan said. “You’re a boy. You don’t have two embarrassing parts to your body like we do!”
“Meg, you had a heck of a lot more clothes on to start with. Are you going to cheat now?”
We went into a huddle. Our honor was at stake. We couldn’t cheat. But Megan was panicked at removing her panties. “I have hair growing down there,” she muttered.
She DID? I didn’t. But my breasts were starting to pouf. I didn’t want to show them to anybody.
Megan pulled off her undershirt and sat there with her arms crossed over her flat nipples.
“Don’t look,” I told Ted. “Look at that picture.” A huge family photograph was on the wall over his left shoulder. Mrs. Sayer sat with a younger Megan pulled in close to her side with the boys and Mr. Sayer around her. I wiggled my legs through the holes of my panties, and tore them off fast fast fast. Then I raised my knees and pulled my undershirt down over them. A big hole gaped at my neck, but my knees filled that, so I didn’t think Ted could see anything.
I felt numb with relief. “You can look now,” I said.
Ted nodded at us. “Bravo, girls. Ready for the next hand?” He picked up the cards.
“No!” we both shrieked. “You won! We lost—end of game!! Now go away so we can get dressed.”
“Oh come on,” he said. “That’s not the end—we play until somebody’s totally naked. That’s how you play.”
But we wouldn’t. I was so glad Megan wouldn’t.
No one wore seat belts back then, not in the back seat, and there was plenty of room to slide, if your legs didn’t stick to the vinyl. That day I was in the middle, Ted on one side, Megan on the other. It was hot and kind of stinky in the Loblaw’s parking lot. Mr. and Mrs. Sayer had rolled their windows down before they got out and slammed their doors shut. “We need a few things for lunch—you kids stay put.”
I could hardly breathe back there. No wind. Megan cranked down her window, but Ted was just sitting there. Sweat beaded on his forehead, then slipped down near his left eye. Even sweaty he was cute, but I was too hot to care. My own sweat trickled from under my arm and dribbled down my side into my underpants.
“Can you open your window?” I said.
He smiled at me.
“Come on, Ted. I’m boiling.”
“Go for it.” He raised his eyebrows and sat back.
Just like a sister. I rolled my eyes to Megan to share the groan, but she had stuck most of her body out her window, cutting off even more air from that side. I glowered at Ted. If he were my sister Lindsay, I would have dug my elbows into his thighs hard. Instead, I leaned over. The blond fuzz on the top of his thighs tickled my upper arms. I had to push into Ted’s hot stomach to get a grip on the slippery window crank. Serve him right.
I slumped back into my seat, but there was still no air. Only the smell of melting tar and exhaust. Cars honked, doors closed, kids complained, parents snapped back. How long were Mr. and Mrs. Sayer going to take?
Megan now sat on the window opening, head above the top of the car, knees pointing toward me. Lucky stiff. Ted lounged, his knees splayed open, taking up too much space.
“Aren’t you hot?” I said.
“Always,” he said. A moment passed. We breathed together, blinking. He pointed to his crotch and raised his eyebrows. ”You want to see it?" he said. I think he meant his penis. Did he really mean his penis?
“I bet you want to see it. If you show me your breasts, I'll show you my dick."
Why would I want to see his penis? I shifted closer to Megan’s knees. I shook my head.
"Okay. You can see it anyway." He unzipped his shorts and pulled it out, before I could do anything. I’d seen my father naked in the bathroom once, but Daddy’s thing had hair all around it. And I hadn’t seen that hardly at all—we’d both screeched and the door slammed shut in my face. Ted slipped his penis through the hole in his white underpants: an oblong bit of silly putty, with a pink cap at the end.
“You can touch it if you want,” he said then. “I know you want to.”
Megan’s knees were at my back. I shook my head again.
"No, no, it's all right. Here, touch it." He shifted close, grabbed my hand and brought my fingers to the thing. Soft and warm and boingy. It leapt up.
I grabbed my hand back.
He smiled. "Pretty cool, right?”
I didn’t nod or shake my head or do anything, say anything. I turned toward Megan’s knees, which were very pale and didn’t have any hair on them. And I stared at them, and felt the rock that sometimes lodged in my throat get all big and hot and painful.
And I heard Mr. and Mrs. Sayer’s voices and Ted humming while he zipped back up and shifted away, and then Megan lowered herself back into her seat and pushed me closer to Ted on the way back to their house. And I didn’t look at him. Or say anything. I sat small in the center of the back seat and hugged my own knees.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Wheeler had this to say about her piece:
After I received affirmations when "My Mother's Suit" appeared in Into the Void, vol. 3, I accepted more readily that my personal stories have value to others, despite or maybe because of being so normal. The challenge of creative nonfiction based on childhood lies in re-creating ”true” memories in scene. I do not trust my memory. As I workshopped “Sex Ed,” I found that even simple editing shaped my memory and my interpretation of what happened. It makes me question, “What is truth?” Something like this happened. The memory I fully trust is the silence I kept about it.
Visit Mathilda at thewonderwriter.com (an occasional blog).