High school was a strange time of pre-internet sexlessness and adults warning me endlessly in varying filmstrips and interrupted lesson plans of the dangers of “Peer Pressure”.
Peer Pressure (PP), I capitalize both letters intentionally, was something as strange and mysterious as any drug but with the added danger of leading to every other bad thing in life such as Drugs, Sex, Alcohol, STDs, Pregnancy, Fun at Parties, Going to Parties, Loitering, Skateboarding, Midriffs, Lines Shaved into the side of your Head, Belly Button Rings, SMOKING, Drinking and Driving, Prom Night, Dances, Speeding, Young Teenage Girls Who Secretly Want to Ruin You, etc. Peer Pressure was the end of the slippery slope of making friends and hanging out with them outside of school. That sort of behavior was discouraged by the invention of the concept of “gangs” which are adult-labeled groups of formerly good kids converted to thuggery by the mere close proximity of other kids, and the presence of usually, but not always, one “bad apple”. The oft-told example of PP was the stereotypical “party” that you weren’t supposed to go to but somehow made it over to when, “you snuck out the window,” and went to the house of someone who’s “parents were out of town”. The Tom Cruise vehicle, “Risky Business,” did more damage to me having a
normal good childhood than anything else I could imagine. The movie sent the adults of the my world into a whirlwind backlash resulting in everyone around me becoming as strict as the town which Kevin Bacon drove into in “Footloose”. I’m tempted at this moment to make a movie of kids who never go out and party or make friends or do anything fun because of the discouragement of their parental advisers. This movie could be a sequel or alternate version of “Footloose” in which Kevin Bacon arrives at the town, music blaring on his in-car stereo hi-fi, and instead of being jailed, the cops simply execute him ‘Nam style at the side of the road, dump empty liquor bottles into the footwells, light it up and roll the car into a ravine. “It was a sad result of Peer Pressure,” the town’s mayor would say at the press conference. The movie would go on to follow the lives of all of those cloistered kids who were never allowed to congregate, drink, listen to music, etc. and how they grew up to be unhappy asshole lawyers who wrote blogs about interacting with people less pure and perfect than themselves. Hopefully the movie would have just as much impact on the current parents as Risky Business had on my parents and their co-conspirators which would result in kids being able to experience the world of their early lives in a non-vacuum full of happy and safe experiences. But then, everyone’s dreams would be realized and no one would be angry enough to grow up and become a lawyer and who wants to live in that world? Shudder.
This one time when I was 20 years old, my reproductive parts still factory new, the two Indian girls I would sometimes hang out with at Loyola called me a player and said that I had a reputation of being a player. Here’s me, “What’s a player?” Them, (insert laughter), “Someone who has been with a lot of girls.” Me, “In what way?” The hotter of the two Indian girls, “A boy who has had sex with a lot of girls.” And then me, red faced, “What? Haha, um…” The conversation was like some kind of devious Chinese fingertrap. Play with it, it’s fun! Boom, you’re stuck. How can I admit to these two girls, one a stranger-shaped but still attractive version of her pretty hot 18 year old friend, that you haven’t had too much sex, but that you aren’t a Virgin either, without ruining your chances of making out with one of them by admitting something they won’t like? How much sex was too much and how much sex was too little? I remember getting pretty pissed inside and resentful that this dossier had been written by unknown parties when in actuality, at that point, I had only kissed my next door neighbor Shannon Bonds (while sitting on the riding mower parked in my parents’ garage in like 5th grade? 4th?), Maureen Boyce in 8th grade and Heather Henkle in Junior Year of High School. Every bit of lip action had been followed by literally years of no physical contact with the opposite sex, not even hand holding. I actually wrote down things to talk about on a piece of paper and held it sweating in the oppressive heat of my parent’s den for at least an hour with the door closed before psyching myself up enough to call a girl I liked. The paper was because I knew I’d choke once the girl was on the line. She could, after all, be secretly trying to ruin me. But that was high school. By the time I was in my dad’s car driving to college, a year after make-out sessions with Heather and a few quick kisses from a girl I was leaving, all I knew was that everyone was having sex in college and I wanted to be like everyone else. But my mom had turned me into a tool of super-awkwardness nearly as powerful as thousands of years of evolution. So when the prettier Indian girl was flirting with me and calling me a player, instead of tossing her into my mustang and driving to a lake, I wanted to stop being friends with her in order to restore my sullied reputation.
When I was probably 14, though I don’t remember exactly, my grandpa asked me to come out onto the porch with him to talk about something. We had traveled there from Chicago to Upstate NY for a visit. Because of lack of money or patience, my parents would only take one of the three kids on trips to NY to see the grandparents, the other kids waiting for the rotation to come around every 2-3 years. A hilarious and worldly ex-WW2 USMC grunt, my grandpa was described by my mom as a womanizer but in glowing positive tones despite our Catholic Doctrine Warnings about Pre-Marital Sex and Sex In General that book-ended every other mention of sex from birth on to today. I had no understanding of why he wanted to talk to me alone. He told me to close the door to the house once we were on the porch and sit in one of the hated red Adirondack chairs. It was just strange walking out there with him as if the tire had gone flat in his truck and he asked me to step out and change it while he waited. I didn’t think I was in trouble; that wasn’t his style. He would have just told me in front of everyone or made a joke of it. The two red Adirondack chairs on his porch were uncomfortable and I remember how they made by butt and back hurt two years previous. But I sat there anyway until something like the world’s largest spider crawled onto my hand. I used the leverage of my whole body to flick it off, freaked out and lept out of the torture chair, and thus started my first and last one-on-one sex talk with an adult outside of Health class. He started to tell me stuff that I already knew from Health class filmstrips but he left out major details like how to avoid sex and peer pressure situations. He told me about tying a knot on the end of a condom, something to this day I still don’t understand. Was he talking about those old leather condoms I had seen a picture of in a book? He also, and God love him, was the one and only adult who ever gave me tips on how to make a woman happy in bed. This is something that every young boy should hear many times from the male adults around him but never do. How would the world be different if men knew what they were doing in bed? Things like Oprah would never have to be invented.
During this strange and uncomfortable talk, a talk I still don’t know if my mom made him do or if he did because he knew it was the right thing to do and he might not see me again for 3 years, he never once mentioned that I would have to be married to the woman I had sex with. I pointed out that I would never use a condom because it didn’t make sense to use a condom with your wife, right? Because sex is only about reproduction and why would you use a condom? Also, I was pretty sure that condoms were evil and banned by the Catholic Church. This seemed to divert him and quiet him and he mumbled something I know now was mumbled advice I’d only understand in 5-25 years. Later he would tell me that I should have sex with as many women as possible during my life, something even my mother would later repeat despite her lifetime of instructions and rules to the contrary. I asked him why he was telling me all of these things and I don’t remember what he said. But he had the talk with me and I now appreciate it. And had he and I been closer toward the end of his life, or maybe were in the habit of talking more than once every three years, I would have flown out to NY and thanked him for being the only real adult in my life who didn’t treat me like a petri dish.
The price, of course, is love and consequences. The years have been lucky for me and I’ve felt like I’ve been in love many times. But it wasn’t love. It was just a purging of rules and overstressed guidelines through desire and I now know that I’ve only been in love once. I even confessed these events recently to a priest who pried into other parts of my love life that I didn’t want to talk about. He described me as having, “a real sweet tooth,” which is Catholic-speak for calling someone a Player, forgave me and advised I return in a week for tips on how to avoid masterbation. Rediculous. The result of all of that is that I no longer want just any woman to love, or more accurately, I only want to be in love. So in essence, I’ve come full circle and I’m sure the Catholics would say that they were right all along. But I feel closer to an ideal I’ve created out of my grandpa, moderated by time, experience and great literature, and I’ve arrived at a place with only one route to it, not a dead end road but a road to a mountain home where something great waits inside.