Mrs. Finch, our born-again Christian neighbor who never gave up on trying to convert us, the only Jews she’d ever met in our militantly Protestant 1960s community, had a son my age named Kyle. When we were five, Kyle blindfolded me and took me to the outer perimeter of our back yard. He turned me around and around again in circles.
“Do you know where you are?” he said.
“Still in our yard?” I said. “But I’m so dizzy.”
He spun me around some more, then took a sharp turn, and led me up to the edge of Briggs Avenue, the main thoroughfare of our neighborhood. The wind from the cars whipped my face; I could smell the exhaust.
“Guess where you are now?” he said.
“Aren’t we getting too close to Briggs, Kylie?” I giggled shyly, as if by becoming more passive, I could elicit his caretaking instincts. Kyle turned me around some more, then must have thought better of our adventure because he veered us back into the yard, and bolted, leaving me to untie my own blindfold.
After that I began to think that Kyle wasn’t a nice boy, at least not as far as I was concerned. Still he was my neighbor, my classmate. We were growing up together. My mother, who wished to see our isolated foothill community as benign, our quiet, superficially well-behaved gentile neighbors as the standard to which my neurotic brothers and I should aspire, admired Kyle. He’d head off to school every morning at eight a.m., carrying his lunch and tossing a baseball. Mrs. Finch didn’t have to make those rushed five-minutes-after-the-final-bell drives to the school like my mother did. She didn’t have to sit in the car with the motor running and plead with her nervous daughter who bit her nails and hyperventilated, and said she would throw up if forced to venture inside the school gates.
In the mirror image of my neurotic father, I presented my mother with nighttime terrors, asthma, and migrating hypochondriacal afflictions. As a teenager, I had added to the list existential questions she didn’t know how to address: How can we live knowing we’re only going to die? Is it just an accident I’m me and not somebody else? How does my heart know to keep beating? As my father teetered on the precipice of total mental collapse in the back bedroom of our house, popping sedatives to stay unconscious, my mother did all she could to simulate normalcy.
In tenth grade, when I seemed hellbent on failing geometry, my mother solicited help from Kyle, a certifiable math whiz. My alienation from the subject matter wasn’t helped by the fact that our geometry teacher, also born again, included an inspirational verse from the New Testament at the top of every worksheet.
It was not hard to convince Kyle to come over. Compared to his house, ours must have seemed Sodom and Gomorrah with its clutter and chaos, its free-running Cokes and limitless supply of candy. Our living room walls were adorned by my father’s favorite fine art prints: Degas’ The Absinthe Drinkers and Renoir’s Gabrielle with A Rose (and a partially exposed breast). Our coffee table overflowed with art books replete with nudes, as well as Leftist magazines, and Jewish newspapers. A Mickey Katz or Allan Sherman comedy album might be playing in the background. In the orderly desert of Kyle’s home, there were blank walls and multiple copies of an iconic image of Jesus.
One night after dinner, Kyle and I sat at our dining room table, matching compasses poised on the table. My mother stood over us, marveling as Kyle wrote his name in perfect cursive on his worksheet.
“What beautiful handwriting you have,” my mother said. “It looks like a machine could have made it.” Kyle’s writing was compressed and square and even. To produce it, he had to hold the pencil so tightly in his hand that his fist turned white, and his face cranked up into a sneer. I feared that the pencil or Kyle would snap at any moment.
I looked down at my own handwriting: my loops ranging from big full circles to flattened droops, my descenders dipping so low they obscured the text on the line beneath them, the whole production spasmodic and unpredictable.
I read the first problem on the homework assignment sheet aloud. Kyle’s hand instantly began to move. My stomach turned over. Numbers, especially sequences of them, made me nervous. Spatial relations were even worse; the two conjoined in geometry made the ominous music from the opening of the Twilight Zone TV show play in my head. The abstraction of mathematical relations seemed devoid of significance or to contain some higher import that I could never quite comprehend.
“But what does it mean?” I would ask one math teacher after another, as if an algebraic equation or geometric relationship should have a meaning like a poem. The more meaning that attached to symbols the less arbitrary they felt. In the arbitrary, the danger of meaninglessness lurked. Poetry, with its multiple layers of interpretability, its sweet textures of rhythm in my mouth, felt the safest.
“What does it mean?” I asked Kyle, a stand of my long brown hair finding its way into my mouth. I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a little frosted pink lipstick.
“What do you mean what does it mean?” he said. “Just draw the circle,” he said, “and do the problem.”
He put the compass on his paper and drew a perfect circle. I pressed down too hard on mine and left a hole in the middle of the circle. “I better start over,” I said.
Kyle had no patience. “Oh, just let me do it for you,” he said, wrenching the compass out of my hand.
I leaned in a little closer to him and watched while he did the problem in front of me, step by step. “Do you get it?” Kyle asked. “It’s easy.”
I hesitated. “Not exactly?” I said.
Kyle ran his fingers over his cropped blonde hair.
“How can you not get it?” He sounded frustrated.
I shrugged, and tilted my head up at him, a dog who’d peed in the corner.
“What makes your cheeks so pink?” Kyle asked. He spilled a handful of M&Ms into his mouth. “Your cheeks are always so pink. And the rest of your skin is very pale next to your dark hair.”
That was an unanswerable question. From Kyle’s tone I couldn’t tell if having pink cheeks and pale skin was a good thing or an oddity.
Around geometry problem number three, I noticed that Kyle had begun to beat his leg against the thick leg of our dining room table. I assumed his behavior rose from his annoyance at my lack of math aptitude. I took the paper out of his hand and looked at the problem more intently. I needed to appease him; otherwise what would happen with that pent-up Kylean energy he harbored? I stared harder, still wishing the problem would open up before me the way a poem did. Kyle moved his hand into his pocket and was beating his leg even more furiously back and forth against the table leg. His face was scrunched up; he looked like he was barely succeeding in holding back forces determined to explode inside him.
Kyle looked down furtively, then asked, “Can I use your restroom, please?”
Kyle stayed in the bathroom for ten minutes. I figured that despite his ease with math, it upset his stomach the way it did mine. When he came out, a little red in the face, he scooped up his homework and book.
“I’ve got to go home now,” he said. “My mom makes us go to bed early. Just figure it out for yourself.”
The next time Kyle came over, my older brother Paul hovered over us. I’d told him what had happened the last time Kyle visited and he was intrigued. In a few minutes the pattern repeated: Kyle ran his hand through his hair, beat his leg against the dining room table, put his hand in his pocket, and rushed off to the bathroom. Paul smirked.
“Don’t you know what he’s doing?”
“Math upsets his stomach?”
“Come on. What do you really think?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s in the bathroom?”
“He’s going in there to look at the Playboys?”
Ben, our oldest brother, kept a stash of several years’ worth of Playboy magazines in the cupboard next to the toilet. For the sake of propriety, my mother had asked him not to leave them out in plain sight in the living room, but we had no censorship in our family. I looked at them as often as my brothers did; in fact Paul and I had begun to look at them together systematically, in search of a woman whose breasts forecasted mine. The girls in my gym class, most of whom were tall, fair, and Anglo, none of whom were dark and small and Semitic like me, had been issued the same model: high-and-round, close-to-the-chest- wall, light-pink- nippled-in- the- center breasts. In the locker room, they cast off their bras, and flaunted their mammary achievement in the showers, arching their backs and pushing them into the spray.
At fifteen, mine still didn’t amount to much; small and elliptical with oversized, dark-colored areolas and prominent nipples. It was one more way I felt different from everyone else in our community.
When I explained what the other girls’ boobs looked like, Paul tried to make me feel better. “They just got issued the Northern European type,” he said.
One day, Paul brought out a copy of National Geographic. “Here,” he said. “Look at this, these look more like yours, more Ubangi. You know, like in Africa.” He showed me a two-page spread of topless tribal women, babies hanging from their waists, their breasts angular and pointed, nipples dark and prominent. There was a definite resemblance.
“Don’t feel bad,” Paul said, “your nipples are probably bigger than the other girls’ whole tits.”
But I did feel bad; all I wanted was to fit in, and we’d had to go all the way to Africa to find breasts like mine.
I glanced towards the closed bathroom door.
“Do you really think he’s looking at the Playboys in there?” I repeated.
“I don’t think he’s just looking,” Paul said.
Just then Kyle emerged, flushed and embarrassed. “Got to go,” he said, grabbing his book. The front door slammed.
“He’s coming over here to beat off,” Paul said.
“No,” I said. I’d never seen any boy perform the act and it sounded as if something would get broken in the process. If Kyle was doing it, it had to be being violent.
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “That is too gross. Why would he do it over here?”
“Well, his mother made it so he can’t do it at home. Remember?”
A few weeks back, Mrs. Finch had told our mother that she’d taken the lock off the door of the one bathroom in the Finches’ house. Our mother had related the story to us.
“My boys were staying in there too long,” Mrs. Finch had complained. “How long does it take to have a bowel movement?”
My mother hadn’t responded; in our irritable bowel-plagued family, it might well take all day.
“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” Mrs. Finch had added. “I needed to remove temptation.”
The Jews’ bathroom must have seemed a hotbed of temptation, a place where Satan had free rein. Afterward, Kyle had to flee the scene, now tainted by his sinning.
By Kyle’s next visit we had moved on to isosceles triangles. Paul came into the room.
“Oh, you came over here to help my sister with her homework? Isn’t that nice of you, Kyle.”
“Yeah,” Kyle grunted.
We struggled through a few problems while Paul stood over us, watching. Every time I looked at my brother, he pointed to his watch and laughed. He was timing how long before the nervous leg beating began again, how long before Kyle’s hand entered his pocket. Kyle looked right at me for a moment, and then looked away. I couldn’t tell what he was feeling but soon he was pounding his leg again, and Paul burst into laughter. I laughed too but then felt an instant rush of shame. This felt personal. Kyle’s behavior wasn’t just motivated by our house or the Playboys. There had to be something about me that fired Kyle’s urges. But his getting turned on didn’t seem to equate to his liking me. He wouldn’t do this in the home of a girl he liked or respected, I thought. He wouldn’t be looking at her with contempt on his face while he rubbed himself against her furniture.
Kyle’s leg beating had picked up. He continued to look at me, and I looked back, searching for any sign that Kyle’s sexual agitation meant that he found me pretty or desirable or suitable girlfriend material. I observed no kindness in his face. If Kyle found me sexy, it wasn’t the kind of sexy that would impel him to ask me out or invite me to a school dance or even dance with me when he saw me standing alone on the sidelines. It was a kind of sexy that made him mad. And he seemed impervious to the fact that my brother and I knew what he was doing. Either he didn’t care or he wanted me to know. Maybe it turned him on more to know that I knew. I felt dirty.
It would only be a matter of time before Kyle would excuse himself to go into our bathroom to masturbate. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
Sure enough, his hand soon entered his pocket as he glanced furtively towards the beckoning bathroom.
“I need to use your restroom,” he said, no longer even asking politely for permission. That night he stayed a full twenty minutes. The whole prelude from entering our house to pretending to help me with my homework to retreating to the bathroom had sped up – our house or the very sight of me a Pavlovian cue for Kyle’s arousal. The time he spent in the bathroom was growing longer and longer.
“Didn’t Kyle come over here tonight?” my mother asked. “Where did he go?” She’d finally noticed.
“He’s in the bathroom,” I said. “Every time he comes over to help me with my homework he spends most of his time in our bathroom, and then he leaves.”
“He comes over here to beat off,” Paul said.
“Oh, please,” my mother said. “Why do you talk that way?”
“I’m not talking any way, he comes over here to jack off.”
It’s the truth, Mom,” I said. “He thinks this is a whorehouse.”
“What did you do to him?” she asked me.
What could I have done? Flirted with him? Worn my t-shirt too tight over my barely protruberant chest? Smiled at him and been nice to him so that he would help me pass Geometry?
My whole romantic history with Kyle flashed before me. When we were four, I’d pulled down my pants. “Want to see my pee pee?” I’d said. I asked him to show me his. He pulled it out from his shorts briefly and sang, There’s a place in France where the women wear no pants and the men run around with their wienies hanging down, and then pushed it roughly back into his pants and ran from the room. Had he been thinking of me as a harlot ever since?
Years later, in New York City, I was thirty, and had to walk through a wooden construction platform near Times Square. From across the street, a man startled me by taking his penis out and waving it at me. “Hey Girly,” he said, “Get a load of this.” Kyle came back to me. The man handled his member with exactly that same roughness, waggling his flacid member with the same combination of belligerence and self-loathing, as if he blamed me for making him humiliate himself this way.
In third grade, a few days before Valentine’s Day, Mrs. Finch and Kyle took me with them on an errand to the dimestore. They looked over a large display of valentine hearts, candy, and other trinkets, and then from a plastic, heart-shaped container, Kyle took a string of light blue faux pearls and placed it around my neck. He stood back to admire them. For a moment I believed that the pearls were intended for me, that Kyle had only been mean to me in the past because he secretly harbored a crush. On Valentine’s Day he would finally bestow this gift on me, and make his love known to our whole class.
“Those will look very pretty on Denise,” Mrs. Finch said, taking them off me. Kyle had saved his allowance to buy the pearls for the most adored girl in our class. It didn’t seem to occur to Kyle or his mother that I might have thought the pearls were for me. They must have assumed that I understood I was not in the category of girls Kyle might like that way. Mrs. Finch bought me a nickel box of conversation hearts for consolation. Denise received five sets of identical pearls in heart-shaped boxes.
“I didn’t do anything, Mom,” I said. “How can you blame me for this?”
“You’re right; you probably didn’t need to do anything. He’s a teenage boy and his mother was crazy for taking the lock off the door,” she said.
I told my mother that I didn’t want Kyle to come over anymore to help me with my homework, and though I don’t remember exactly what I told him, the visits stopped. I passed geometry with a C. A few months later, there was a backwards dance at school, and I imported a Jewish boy, the nephew of a family friend that I’d met at a party as my date. Kyle watched us enter the room, and then stared at us all evening. He stared at the boy’s hand on my leg as we sat near the dance floor, he stared at us as we danced, stared as we held hands. Kyle had his own date but seemed much more interested in mine. When I noticed Kyle’s staring, I stared back. The look in his eyes no longer reflected just contempt but also a stunted ownership. I decided to rub it in.
When the boy and I sat down, I shifted my skirt up and moved the boy’s hand higher up my thigh, and then placed my hand upon it. As we danced, I nuzzled his neck, and kissed him passionately in plain view. I’d never really wanted Kyle. He was way too mean, way too held-in, but I’d never before been intentionally cruel to him either. Now I felt full of the power of my own sexuality, taunting him, torturing him with what he could never have.
The next day at school Kyle blasted me with questions: “Who was that guy?” –
“Where did he come from?”— “He’s not from around here, is he?”— “How much do you like him?” – “Are you going to see him again?” I was certain then that what spurred Kyle’s desire wasn’t just the Playboys or the freedom in the Jews’ house, it was the Jewess. He saw me as forbidden, taboo, off-limits. Exotic. Other. And according to his mother and his church, I was on my way to Hell, and if he wasn’t careful I could take him there with me. His ambivalence must have confused him. He must have hated me for making him feel sexual desire, and hated himself even more for feeling it.
The shame was his, I decided, I had nothing to be ashamed of. From the backwards dance on, I took possession of what Kyle could never achieve: a carefree relationship to my own sexuality. I would suffer no torture over my own desire, bear no burden of guilt, no sense that to enjoy my body was to displease God.
Being with my date, being with that handsome boy, – kissing, caressing, pushing my body hard against his, and having him push back with equal intensity –hadn’t felt like a sin to me. It had felt like freedom.
Deborah A. Lott’s work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, Los Angeles Review, Puerto del Sol, Salon, Two Hawks Quarterly, etc. , and thrice named as notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. Her memoir, Tell Me I’m Still Breathing is currently being shopped by the Rob Weisbach Company.