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Leon Uris taught me about sex. In sixth grade, no less.
I wasn’t a particularly precocious or debauched child, though I did have an unhealthy attachment to Almond Joys. I was what sociologists have come to identify as “bookworm”. But not by choice.
I came of age in antediluvian times, when the idea of video games or fat-free pudding cups was just crazy talk. There was not much to do to entertain oneself as a child—at least not much to do without accruing the substantial risk of an early death.
Unlike today, where one can experience early social annihilation by flubbing a chord while playing Rock Band or accidentally forwarding a smack-laden e-mail to the person being trashed, entertaining oneself during my growing up years was chock full of chances for real extinction, courtesy of bug-collecting kits outfitted with actual medical syringes or mini-metal cauldrons designed to mold sparkly plastic critters that were more likely to brand you with an image of an unlikely caterpillar. If you didn’t kill yourself or your friends by air embolisms or etched third-degree burns on your forehead, you weren’t considered an active child.
I wasn’t an active child.
While my sister was dealing with her unconscious suicidal ideation by performing somersaults in a front yard booby-trapped by armies of yucca plants, I decided my best chance at survival was the great indoors, remaining as immobile as possible by embedding myself in the space between my twin-size bed and a bedroom cinderblock wall shielding me from giant African snails, leftover WWII ammo, and spontaneous play dates. There I read anything I could get my chubby hands on, which in my house were pesticide labels and Japanese women’s magazines (interchangeable in terms of interest since both were in Japanese). Rounding out my collection were Reader’s Digest, Stars and Stripes and the occasional forgotten Popular Science magazine found jammed in the back of a carved teak end table Dad bought during an assignment in the Philippines.
To be honest, I don’t consider the Japanese magazines an exercise in reading so much as early efforts in post-modernist thinking. Constructing stories from whatever I could deduce from grainy pictures of Enka singing stars, mosquito coil ads and the frequency of Chinese characters in the articles (the thought being the more characters, the higher the intellectual quotient, a theory that probably didn’t pan out in reality due to the abundance of black-and-white images of women wearing bug-eyed sunglasses and scarves, clutching handkerchiefs while seated in front of an array of microphones.) The fact that the magazines went from left to right added to the semiotic allure. Books however, were another matter.
In a household where books were either non-existent or in Japanese, my supply came from two sources: the library (sanctioned) or other people’s houses (undetected). The library was the obvious route: living on an air force base on a teeny island off the coast of Japan with 25-cent taxi rides being the norm, getting myself to the library was simple, even encouraged by a stay-at-home mother whose overwhelming wish was not to be bothered by anyone living in her household who attended elementary school. I spent hours there, hours that I would like to describe as unmolested, though unnoticed is would be more accurate. I roamed the stacks like an impoverished dinosaur, scanning the tops of shelves in search of subjects of interest. And what was of utmost interest? Sex, or what approximated sex in a world where the closest thing I had in sex education were furtive peeks at “Little Annie Fanny” cartoons buried in my neighbor’s Playboy collection, which were way more engaging than the parade of centerfolds draped with checkerboard tablecloths (July) or oversized red jackets (December).
But finding books on the aforementioned topic in a Department of Defense-sponsored environment wasn’t easy. I was terrified of venturing into the adult section lest I be spotted and revealed as the eleven year-old, 140-pound degenerate that I was. I lumbered through the children’s section, pawing through previously read accounts of ducks in China choked on a regular basis to catch fish or gangs of high-achieving middle-schoolers performing unspeakable acts with the laws of physics and baking soda. Then I spotted it: a nondescript book left on a table next to the children’s section. It had a peculiar title: QB VII.
Sidling up to table, I tried quietly slipping into the chair in front of the book, only to realize my polyester-clad abdomen was much too large to accomplish such a move. After fifteen minutes of breathless contortions, I surrendered and pulled it out, wincing at the sound of the feet scraping against the linoleum. I began to read.
It was a painful read, filled with agonizing detail about World War II that was only alleviated by loving asides describing Borneo tribes and a Jewish neighborhood in Virginia. Confused and, more importantly, desperate to kill three hours before Mom arrived in the Rambler to pick up me and my sister, at that very moment was testing her skeletal resiliency with attempts at backward spins at the roller rink next door. As I slogged through the endless jumble of exposition, I came upon…the page.
It came out of nowhere. All I remember is a woman named Samantha reading books aloud to an Abe, one of protagonists (who is wearing bandages over his eyes), then she’s crying while giving him “gentle slaps” The episode ends with Samantha, after her “controlled frenzy” made Abe “succumb” apparently with eye bandages still in place.
I froze. It’s one thing to spend unsupervised afternoons in a friend’s basement starting at cartoon boobs drawn to resemble the mammary equivalent of pre-exploding pastry bags, but this? This was…perplexing. What the heck was she doing? And what was the connection between the “frenzy” and sticking her hands between his legs while kissing his feet? And how was she able to accomplish such an act when I couldn’t even do a decent tumble during PE?
It was obvious the guy with the bandages wasn’t really minding Samantha’s behavior, though it did occur to me that if I couldn’t see what was going on, I’d be a little freaked out by someone whipping me with their hair, no matter how “feather soft” it was.
At this particular juncture of my existence, sex meant breasts, period. I had a dim awareness of penises, but other than the ability to pee without coming into contact with lethal toilet seats (a concern my mother communicated to me by her determined wiping of any toilet I chose to use outside our home), they weren’t part of the equation. Sex was simply a female body part that (according to “Little Annie Fanny”) frequently slipped into public view at the most inopportune times, much to the amusement of the hoards of pipe-smoking men in plaid blazers who perpetually surrounded her, even on desert islands. Other than that, I had no idea that sex meant actually doing something.
After the shock wore off, I closed the book and spent the rest of my time pushing it away from me with my index finger in the hopes that by putting as much physical space between me and the foot-kissing, no one would realize I was reading smut. To further hide evidence of my thought-crime, I grabbed a book from the kid’s section and steeled myself for Mom’s arrival, taking guilty peeks at the book lying accusingly at the end of the table.
I never mentioned the whole sordid episode to anyone because, quite frankly, there wasn’t anyone to tell. My daily existence consisted of eating everything in sight, reading and going to school. Since finding peers was a challenge, I denied myself the traditional method of sex education, which was huddling in a playground corner and having a classmate solemnly inform you in appalling detail exactly why those guys in plaid blazers were so interested in Annie.
I didn’t the exact mechanics of sex until the seventh grade, when I was forced to watch horrific film strips during PE class, provided to us courtesy of Kimberly-Clark, featuring daisies, anatomical outlines of teenage genitalia and excessive milkshake drinking. To this day I get a slight twitch whenever I see a Dairy Queen.
Or an eye patch.
LINDA UEKI ABSHER is the creator of The Lipstick Librarian! web site. She works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.