First Encounters is a series in which writers explore the media that inspired their first brush with their sexuality. Whether it was a book, a cartoon character, a film, or a painting, we all have one cultural artifact from our adolescence that informs how we think about our bodies and desires for the rest of our lives. Have a First Encounter you’d like to share? Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was in fifth grade, I was in a recess club called The Poop Skins. Five afternoons per week, our 10 person group trudged casually through the woodchips scattered for safety’s sake around the playground equipment, climbed the wrong way (aka the cool way) up the spiral slide to the highest platform (which we called “the cliff” even though it was probably only six feet off the ground) and crawled through a short tunnel into “the bubble”: a sphere-shaped apparatus big enough for approximately one person.
The official purpose of The Poop Skins was to come up with “cool dares,” and it usually resulted in one of us jumping off the cliff. The unofficial purpose was to congregate inside the bubble, a space so cramped that our legs were forced to touch, and where, more importantly, the middle-aged playground monitors could not see us.
Occasionally, for job security reasons (our group was comprised of both boys and girls, and some of us were pubescent and technically capable of impregnating each other) the monitors would drag their aging bodies into the bubble and yell, “I see you!” But this happened very rarely, probably because climbing and crawling hurt their mature bones, but also because heaving oneself through a series of tubes to make sure middle schoolers aren’t kissing is weird and humiliating for any adult.
For the most part I found our club boring and spent the majority of meetings fantasizing about the mud villages I used to build at recess. (Prior to being asked to join the Poop Skins, my primary friends had been insects.) But the heady new reality of my own desire held me back from issuing my resignation. Puberty had hit me suddenly and squarely in that bubble, resulting in a diffuse attraction to every boy in close proximity so long as he was wearing cartoonishly huge basketball shorts, which was the style that year. Every day at recess, at least five boys sat across from me — knees bent, shorts billowing around equally voluminous boxers, every inch of fabric dangling fashionably low. If I was lucky, and looked hard enough, I sometimes caught a glimpse of penis. Before boys even knew to look for my nipples or the shape of my butt, I was objectifying the shit out of them.
These sightings sent me into lathers that initially proved difficult to rinse. On the bus, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass and wondered if I was dying or if I simply had to pee. Once home, I barreled past my mother, whose offering of Oreos and milk now seemed painfully childish, and sprinted up the stairs to my room, where I locked the door, blasted Sublime on my boom box, and danced wildly, limbs flailing, praying to God that the basketball short trend would never change. At night I dreamt of balls.
Don’t get me wrong: this wasn’t my first foray into what my stepmother called boy-crazyness. I’d had crushes before, but up until then they had mostly revolved around naming my pet mice after male teachers, or wanting to save my male peers from great calamity. There were Hanson posters on my bedroom wall, and yes, I practiced kissing on them. But this was different. Basketball shorts electrified me. Somehow, without ever having taken an actual sex education class (shame on you, Wisconsin), I knew suddenly, and instinctively, the exact mechanics of penis-in-vagina, and I wanted it. Unfortunately, as far as I understood, I had to wait to have sex until prom, which, as a fifth grader, felt as vague and as faraway as retirement. In the meantime, summer happened, and the sexual sleuth in me soon discovered that not only could I see down basketball shorts, I could also basically see through them. (Around this time, and for obvious reasons, I began to develop an interest in the NBA — only to learn that apparently professional basketball players wear some kind of special undergarment (Ace Bandages? Early versions of Spanx?) to keep from inadvertently exposing themselves or flopping around. However they accomplish this, I still hate it.)
I’m not sure if the boys mowing lawns in my neighborhood weren’t wearing underpants or what, but their bare chests suddenly seemed boring compared to what was bouncing back and forth between their legs. Suffice it to say that unless you are LeBron James with your stupid, $5,000 compression boxers, that shiny, synthetic material leaves little to the imagination; really, it’s tantamount to X-Ray vision — a super power that, as a ten year old, I had always secretly wanted (second to freezing time so that I could undress people and cheat on tests).
Imagine me back then: sitting on a miniature folding chair in my backyard, pressing cold Diet Dr. Pepper cans to my flushed cheeks while my high school neighbor took a Weed Wacker to his family’s berm — braces affixed to my chompers with green and yellow rubber bands picked specially in an attempt to entice Green Bay Packer fans just like him. (This proved ill-fated; eventually I asked what he thought of my “bands,” and he responded, “I dunno, together those colors sort of look like boogers,” with no awareness of what I was trying to accomplish.) I wore five T-shirts at a time to avoid wearing a bra. I was growing faster than I ever would again and simultaneously suffering a kind stultifying boredom that made me want to lie down in the grass and die. Basketball shorts offered some relief from all of that. They gave me an outlet for pubescent inklings while distracting me from the mind-numbingness of 80-degree weather in the suburbs. All I wanted was for school to start again so I could get back in the bubble. When recess rolled around again I crawled through the tunnels to our old haunt. We sat with our legs pressed together and dared each other to climb higher, jump father, until eventually one of our cohort broke his ribs on the wood chips. When he returned to school I dared myself to kiss him, leaning in after the other Poop Skins had all crawled away, eyes closed, only to be held at arms length.
“Ew,” he said, readjusting the ace bandages through his T-shirt.
I would have to wait.
A few months later, our club dissolved due to new playground monitors who would not allow students to congregate unseen. So we started having parties, and kissing each other, and calling each other sluts or badasses for kissing each other – depending on that person’s gender – and making all the typical mistakes that go hand-in-hand with growing up, experimenting sexually and hurting one another. Now we’re scattered around the country. One of us is dead and none of us are virgins. We have partners and wives and husbands and don’t leap from six-foot-high platforms anymore because it hurts our bones. But I can still feel the sun on my face and the fatigue of that summer spent staring at bodies, trying desperately to speed up time simply by looking.