year Sean turned twelve, Santa Claus gave him a subscription to Playboy.
The first issue was in his stocking on Christmas morning, as if the gods
had conspired to unmask him, reveal his appalling thoughts to
all of them, here under the tinselled tree, on the only day they knew how to behave like a family. He pulled the rolled magazine
out with one furtive glance, pushed it into a pile of wrappings and dug
into the toe of the stocking, remembering a Matchbox fire truck he’d
found there once. He’d been thrilled to realize Santa had been listening
to his secret wishes, had known just what would please him.
He’d set it on his dresser and it stayed there for years, until he unthinkingly mentioned it to his brother Josh, who doubled over, laughing at him. Was
he still such a baby that he believed in elves and fairies, imagined some
sympathetic spirit was looking out for him at the North Pole?
Idiot, idiot. The next day he’d hurled the truck out over the
railing of the highway bridge. He had a good arm. His little talisman
flew over the embankment, into the catbriar bushes, and was gone.
“Now, the whole point,” his mother said, turning the magazine
over so you could see the girl on the front, with her breasts brimming up out
of her red velvet . . . outfit . . . or whatever, "the whole point is that sex is
nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a natural part of life. Of course boys get aroused
by pictures of naked women . . . ” She cast a quick glance toward his father — wasn’t
he proud of her forward thinking? She understood; she was very open-minded.
Aroused. His mother said this so proudly, like it was a new vocabulary word.
This girl in the red velvet looked hard and shiny, like a statue
that wouldn’t break no matter what you did to her. She bore no resemblance to
any woman he knew, it was all right to imagine smashing himself into her body
the way he did, the way he was supposed to. Yeah, she’d like it, she’d want
it, even. “You want it, bitch, don’t you?” he imagined himself saying.
Aroused. His mother said this so proudly, like it was
a new vocabulary word. She’d gotten his father a gift certificate to Fredericks
of Hollywood so he could pick out panties for her. It was 1976. Sex was sprouting out
of every crevice, like mushrooms in a damp season — pale and tuberous and
faintly ridiculous, but perfectly natural, as everyone kept assuring everyone
His Christmas gift to his mother that year was a new kind of
corkscrew. His father worked nights at the restaurant, and around five o’ clock
she’d sigh and say, “Sean, it seems like it takes a man to open a wine bottle,” and
hand it to him. This one promised some magical leverage, no masculine strength
required, and it was lucite — sleek and modern, just what she liked.
“You’re so thoughtful,” she said, and something tugged in his
throat, some stupid little kid thing, his happiness at pleasing her.
“Tits and ass, tits and ass he wanted,” his mother sobbed,
accidentally lacerating herself with the insults she meant for her husband. “I
wasn’t enough for him. He wanted some hot ticket, some sexy young girl.”
Sean shuddered. He thought of the pictures in the magazines,
the way women could spread themselves open and show you what they were like inside.
The year that began with free love had ended with none for his mother. His father
was gone, with one of his waitresses, a small, quiet, sad-looking girl named
Kim who’d dropped out of high school the year before. She’d always hid her breasts
under a sweatshirt, and Sean imagined they were big with wide brown nipples and
that when his father lifted the sweatshirt, her expression would change from
its usual boredom and resignation to secret pride, in the power she held over
him. She called her mother and said they were in Florida, but the cook had
heard them talk about Maine. A year passed, then another, with no word. The restaurant
was closed, of course. His mother was a clerk in the pharmacy and Sean worked
on the pier, loading the fish truck, on weekends. He was strong now, his chest
wide as his father’s — but it felt false to him, like a big costume with
a timid boy inside.
He buried his face in her cunt, tasting what his father knew.
Kim used to babysit her sisters after school. When
she left, Josh took over, though Deanna and Sherry were ten and twelve already
and could have done for themselves. Josh and Sean walked them home from school,
helped with their homework, gave them their cookies and milk. Deanna had that
spark; when they played Truth or Dare, she always took the dare. Josh dared
her to run out to the mailbox naked, and you knew that’s what she’d been hoping
for. Sherry shook her head; she didn’t like Deanna getting all the attention.
Sherry’s breasts were starting, and when you touched her nipples she got that
look like she was the one daring you. There was a prize for whoever got the right
count of her twenty-three pubic hairs. The girls didn’t mind; they loved to let you see
“Go ahead,” Sherry said, smiling a little, like she didn’t think
he had it in him. Sean nudged her legs apart, but he couldn’t bring himself
to look there. He’d imagined touching her gently, but what if she took it for
cowardice? No, he pushed her back and buried his face in her cunt, cunt, cunt,
repeating the hard word to himself to urge himself on. He was tasting what his
father knew, what had changed his father’s life.
He threw up when he got home, probably a virus; an
hour later, he was fine. Day by day, he grew bolder with the girls. He dreamed
once that he was just lying next to Sherry, looking into her eyes. Nothing ever
felt so good, but when he tried it for real he found he didn’t have the nerve.
He could do anything else, though, and he and Josh were closer for their secret
afternoons. They got matching tattoos: CLL, for Cunt Lickers Local, in the shape
of a union badge. It was a conquest, something to be proud of, like the time
he threw that firetruck away. Innocence left you at everyone’s mercy — yes,
it hurt to crush it, but then it was gone, and you were bulletproof, a man.