At eleven, I’m the youngest of eight boys lined up along one row of lockers in the otherwise empty men’s locker room at the swimming pool to which the day camp I am attending takes us every other day. Normally, I’d be changing with boys my own age, but a mix-up back at the camp grounds landed me on the bus with these guys, who are all twelve and thirteen. I turn my back to them to hide the erection that has taken hold of my body and which I am having difficulty fitting into my bathing suit. Despite my best efforts to remain inconspicuous, however, my movements attract the other boys’ attention and one of them sneaks up behind me and looks over my shoulder. “Hey!” his voice rings out metallically, “look at the size of Newman’s boner!”
The rest of the boys surround me in a tight circle. I stand there unable to move, my body pointing me into the air above the middle of the room, wishing I could vanish, that it would vanish, but no matter how much I will it, the damned thing will not go down.
“What are you, a homo?”
“Other guys’ dicks must turn him on!”
“Wanna suck mine, queer!?”
The taunts continue for what seems like hours, though it is probably only a few minutes, and then the head counselor comes in and ushers us all out to the pool. I can’t believe he didn’t hear what the other boys were saying, but he acts as if he didn’t, barely looking at me as he shows me where the boys in my group have spread their towels.
Later that evening, while I’m getting ready for bed, I stand naked before the full-length mirror inside my door and tuck my penis out of sight between my legs. I’m not trying to imagine myself as a girl, but I am intrigued by the possibility of a body that does not have erections.
The first time the old man who lived at the top of the staircase said hello to me, he stopped for a moment as we passed in the courtyard and looked at me as if he’d known me my whole life. I stood there, taking in the warmth of his gaze, wishing as he walked away that I’d said something to make him stay so I could tell him who I was. I was thirteen years old.
Over the next couple of months, a ritual of greeting grew between us. He would smile and say hello first; I would smile, say the same thing back, and then a long silent moment would pass while he looked at me and I stood there, too happily embarrassed to move.
Then, one late summer’s day, after our usual exchange was over, the old man did not keep walking. “When am I going to see you?” he asked.
“Soon!” I answered, figuring he was lonely, like Mrs. Schechtman had been when she lived in the apartment next to his and I used to go sit with her once in a while just to keep her company.
Not too long afterwards, as I was going out to play with my friends, the old man met me at the bottom of the staircase leading to the front door of our building. It’s possible that he’d planned it this way, but I don’t think so; there was no way he could’ve known when I stepped out of my apartment. He was probably just on his way out at the same time I was, and when I reached to turn the knob, he was standing right behind me, holding the door shut with his left forearm. With his right, he maneuvered me face first into the corner near the mailboxes where the door frame met the wall. Covering my body with his own, he ran his hands beneath my shirt and up the legs of my shorts; he groped my chest and belly, squeezed my butt, cupped at my crotch, and all the time, over and over again, he kept asking me that same question, whispering hoarsely into my ear, “When am I going to see you?”
I had no words for what he was doing to me, no training such as young children get now in how to scream no! to scare off an attacker. All I could do was stand there till he was finished. Then I ran. I don’t remember how far or how long or even in which direction, but I ran as if I could leave my skin behind, as if running would turn me into another person. When I finally stopped running, in the small park across the street from the Lutheran Church, where my friends and I sometimes hung out at night, I sat a long time with the knowledge that my running had undone nothing, that my body was still the body he’d touched, and I knew that he would want to touch me again.
I told no one what had happened, and when the old man passed me the next day and said hello, I said hello back the way I always did, pretending not to notice the ironic and conspiratorial twist he added to his smile. A few weeks later, he saw me sitting with my friends in front of our building and asked me to help him upstairs with some packages he had with him. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t know how, not without risking that my refusal would somehow lead my friends to the truth of what he’d done to me. So I took the package he pointed at from his shopping cart–to make it easier, he said, for him to get the cart up the stairs–and followed him to his apartment.
As soon as he’d shut the door of his place behind us, he pushed the cart to the side, took the bag I was holding and dropped it to the floor. The cans at the bottom of the bag landed with a crash that shook the whole apartment.
Snaking his arms around my waist, he undid my belt–all I could do was stand there, frozen to the spot where my feet had stopped moving–and then he unzipped my pants and pushed them down so they fell around my ankles. Then he took me gently by the hand and led me to the couch against the wall, where he sat down. Looking up at me with a wide smile–I have the distinct memory that he’d taken out his two front teeth–his eyes, at what I imagine must have been the fear in mine, grew tender, almost fatherly, “You’ve never had a blowjob before, have you?” When I shook my head no, his voice filled with concern. “But don’t you want me to love you?”
In the silence with which I responded, he took my penis in his hands–I remember thinking that his fingers were like a cage–and he told me how good my penis was, how beautiful and big, and then his own pants were down, I was sitting on the couch, and his own penis, large and purple, hung in front of my face, and his voice came from somewhere above me, urging me to play with it, at least to touch it, and I don’t remember if I did, but I do remember his hand on the back of my neck, and then I see myself walking wordlessly to his front door, unlocking it, closing it behind me, and then I am in my bed, curled in the fetal position, where I stay until my mother calls me for dinner.
The next day, he saw me standing by myself in front of our building and pleaded with me to go upstairs with him again. This time, he promised,would be different. He would move more slowly, be more gentle, but something in me rebelled. I said no, ignoring his further please until he walked away.
He never spoke to me again, and he eventually moved away, and I have no doubt there are other men in this world who had with him when they were boys an experience similar to mine. I remember only once trying to tell someone what he’d done to me. I was sitting outside with my friend Kim when he passed by. He ignored me and nodded hello to her; she nodded in return. When I knew he was out of earshot, I turned to her, tried to fill my voice with everything she’d need to understand what I really meant, and said, “He’s a faggot!”
Kim looked at me in honest confusion, “So what if he’s gay? So what?”
The blank stare I answered her with was as uncomprehending as the silence in which she waited for me to explain myself. I don’t remember being explicitly, actively, h
omophobic, but everyone knew–or at least I thought everyone knew–that it was only homosexual men who preyed on young boys. Now, of course, I know differently, but to have said anything else at the time would have risked my telling Kim the whole story, and that’s something I would not be ready to do for some time.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.