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I'm doing it, Rhoda thought. I'm doing it. This is doing it. This is what it feels like to be doing it.

"This doesn't hurt a bit," she said out loud. "I think I love you, Johnny. I love, love, love you. I've been waiting all my life for you."

"Don't talk so much," he said. "It's better if you stop talking."

from "Music," by Ellen Gilchrist

In the place where I spent my junior high years, during the time my body changed from prickly hickory stick to verdant magnolia blossom, sex permeated the air but was never spoken aloud, at least among girls.

During my 7th and 8th grade years in Jackson, Tennessee, I hung out with a gang of popular boys who congregated in my neighborhood, and I often overheard them grumbling about which girls made out with them and which ones refused even a goodnight kiss at the door.

As I grew older, I was pushed outside of their group by my emerging sexuality; I became more an object of desire and less a friend to the guys I had spent my summers running with -- swimming in creeks, smoking cigarettes in the woods, running barefoot down scalding asphalt streets, and generally embracing life with carefree athleticism and zeal.

I soon discovered that the entire social stratification of life in Jackson as a teenager depended so much on sex that it infused every encounter. Every glance, every brush in the hallway at school was loaded with erotic possibility, but sex remained a taboo subject of conversation -- at least among girls.

The vague, often misunderstood rules were these: you wanted boys to think you were sexy, in fact you wanted to be sexy, but you didn't want to "put out" too much. Going all the way was strictly forbidden, but our limited knowledge of our own bodies made it impossible to know exactly what constituted going all the way. Sex occurred up top or down there, and down there lurked a foreboding mixture of titillating sensations and potentially dangerous events which remained strictly secret and unspoken among people who were part of polite society -- and being part of polite society in Jackson, Tennessee in the late '60s, defined your worth as a person.

In Jackson, teenagers paired up, went to dances, made out, went steady, broke up, paired up with someone else, then began the entire cycle over again. If you dropped out of this scene, you dropped out of society entirely. Back roads were lined with cars crowded with double-headed monsters, boys and girls wrapped in each other's arms. Our mothers were silent and timid; our fathers grew frustrated, angry and sullen as they helplessly stood on the sidelines, watching their daughters being consumed by hungry boys.

I soon learned that bad boys were far more interesting than good boys when it came to sex, and that many boys in Jackson moved up in society by teaching the rich, good boys their mannerisms, their badness, to help them seduce girls. I became smitten with boys on the margins -- boys with dark personal lives, drunken, divorced mothers, dead baby brothers, absent fathers. These boys drove loud cars, drank hard liquor, let their hair go wild, were swathed in dark mystery, and when it came to making out -- unlike their fair-haired, well-bred cohorts -- they knew what they were doing.

I climbed a precarious, wobbly social ladder during my last year in Jackson, 9th grade, hanging out with bad boys who had gained entre into society by associating with spoiled rich boys and teaching them their bad ways. I hung on their arms, smiled through parties, then tangled endlessly with them in back seats, on pine needle beds, in darkened parking lots.

Sex was the center of my waking and sleeping universe, and not once did I talk about it to anyone. Instead of calling it sex, we called it love. Instead of painting it red and coloring it with sweat and blood, we colored it pink and drew it in dainty heart shapes.

Last week, I sat with a friend, her two teenage sons and their two girlfriends, and we talked about sex in a downtown coffee shop. We named the clitoris aloud and laughed at sexual misadventures. It felt warm and comfortable, not particularly extraordinary, but honest and good. I looked at them and knew that they had private sexual thoughts and feelings too. I wondered if their ability to have conversations like this would save them some confusion down the line.

These beautiful girls with their shiny hair and clear eyes, these boys with their shy smiles would enjoy and be hurt by sex, just as their mother and I had, and in their freedom to talk about it, who knows? Maybe they would enter adulthood actually understanding something about sex and about themselves.

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