"I've met someone," I wrote to Kimsky, finally.
"So that's why you've been hiding," she replied by computer. "For a while we thought you'd gone back to that old guy, Moresgard or whatever."
"No Moersgard," I typed in correction. "Get this name: Valentine Teshenko."
"I don't know about him, but I want to screw the name already," wrote Kimsky.
"I haven't. He's too intense, I'm too intense. I'm afraid."
"Gutless Augusta. Why are you afraid of him?"
"He's not a hurter, that's for sure. I suppose I'm afraid of what I'm feeling. I want him. I like him. He's so beautiful that if you could see how his hair curls, you'd come out here to visit and try to beat me to his bed."
"When can I visit?"
"In a couple years, you hog. When I can tell you how the curls feel against my chin."
"Sign off, you slimeball. I need to go find Burlie."
Oh, yes, that first real kiss.
Adjacent to the golf course on the south side of town, Port Laughton University maintained an arboretum on the donated acreage of a former faculty member's family. The hilly terrain was ideal for packing numerous specimens in among winding paths. Rather than looking like a nursery full of separate shrubs, each section was landscaped to display the qualities of the collected plants in an artistic tableau, secluded from other paths by the nature of the foliage and elevation of the trails. After our dinner at Taylor's, Valentine and I had agreed to meet on Saturday morning for me to act as a guide on his first visit to the gardens.
Guide, schmide. We wanted to get to know each other more than we wanted to look at bushes.
From my many walks in the arboretum, I knew most of the interesting specimens and their seasons of spectacle, and pointed them out as we strolled along through the early morning mist. I really wanted Valentine to try to kiss me, but he only touched me now and then, as lightly as a feather brushing my sleeve: a brief contact between his fingers and my back, his nose catching wisps of my hair as he looked over my shoulder to read a park information placard, his arm bumping against my shoulder. Yet he seemed to study me (which made me nervous) and by halfway through the arboretum's winding trail, he was placing a hand on my shoulder (but only for a second), tapping my hand with his fingers to call my attention, and if we sat on one of the many benches provided for visitors, letting his leg touch mine -- and then moving away.
On one such bench where we had stopped to watch a hawk circling through the trees, he put his arm across the back behind me. Finally, I thought, he's going to steal a kiss. But instead of petty theft, he reached to my head and lifted one of the longer strands of blonde hair, and began to ask if I had ever studied botany. While I replied that my study of plants was only casual apart from the backyard garden of my friend Kimsky, Valentine drew a forefinger across my eyebrow, placed a palm fleetingly on my knee, and fingered the zipper on my jacket, all in a non-committal way, with a distant smile playing about his face. I could not figure out what he was up to, and became increasingly annoyed.
"God, look at those eyes," he said, grinning.
But before I could stand up and walk away, he leaned over and kissed me, kissed me as though he knew every response of mine he could induce. Far more than he'd bargained for on a park bench in a flower museum, that first kiss had turned from sweet touches of lips to a devouring passion in about four seconds flat, frightening us both.
We distanced ourselves a little after that, trying harder to be careful about our feelings. Our coy and tentative flirtation had quickly become too serious. He grew more somber, less flippant, more solicitous. I suppose it was I who, drawing back from my unexpected, and not altogether welcome emotions, kept the pressing desire for consummation at bay, but perhaps it was some guardian spirit, a tree, a standing stone, a cautionary tale.
I was in the grocery store looking for a pain-killer for a sinus headache one day, and found the many varied pain relievers directly across an aisle from a rather vast array of condoms. A woman with a small child in her cart was also looking at the rows of aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxin sodium, and ibuprofen; absorbed in her examination of these magic substances, she did not notice that her child was fascinated by the colors and packaging of the contraceptives, or perhaps she simply did not care. That such things exist, and are helpful, and in some cases are quite a necessary item I cannot deny, but to be honest, I do not wish to look at them, nor would I have wanted a child of mine to learn letters by spelling out the brand name of rubbers.
En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... There was an age of the world when I had never heard of contraceptive devices or substances. In the unenlightened time in which I entered the world, sex lived in the secret province of marriage, hidden away from children and strangers, the cloistered activity of spouses. Parents did not speak of sexual things to their children; there was no need. We children had no questions for them.
I could have picked any book from my father's shelves and opened it up and read at random, (and I did) and never encountered a word more offensive than "Damn" or a scene more salacious than a man kissing a woman. On the television, then still a staticky black and white and stilted representation of American life, even the rare, gentle, chaste smooching was reserved for the later shows, after nine at night, when good parents sent their children off to bed. For example, I was not permitted to watch the television series "Gunsmoke," as my parents considered that the portrayal of outlaws was too graphic and would be a bad influence upon my behavior; I do not doubt as well that the ongoing romance of Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty, whose back-ground scenery was the saloon, (did she own it, run it, or was she just a barmaid?) was also not felt to be of value to a child's education. They never did marry, you know. Tsk.
Living in a small town in the midst of agricultural concerns, I was no stranger to the concept of mating, conception, and birth. Cats and dogs did these things, and so did cows and sheep. I understood that my existence was due to such a thing, but I didn't dwell on it, nor did the other kids who played in the neighborhood. There were far more interesting subjects for entertainment, and nothing brought the topic of human sexuality to our attention, beyond the usual giggling when little Bobby Jones showed his genitals to Katie Murphy in return for her display, as children tend to do once they find out that male and female parts are different.
When the first James Bond films came out, they were considered very adult viewing and skating along the edge of pornographic. (I longed to see them not for the cleavage, but because I had fallen in love with Sean Connery even while I was frightened to hysterics by the Death Coach and the Banshee in Darby O'Gill and the Little People.) But the Bond girls and gadgets were irresistible, and the public accepted the smudging of the boundary lines.
Times began to change, slowly at first. I am old enough to have grown up under the social rules that good girls didn't call boys on the phone, that kissing on a first date was an advertisement of easy virtue, (so to speak) and that sex belonged in marriage and no where else, and honorable people did abide by those rules.
Some will argue that such a naive frame of social mores could only occur in a white middle class family in America in the middle of the twentieth century, and that the rest of the world had far more liberal views and more clues about life and love; I don't know, not being able to speak for the rest of the world. I am glad that I had a childhood of climbing trees and looking at dead snakes for excitement, rather than video games and worrying about molestation by teachers or relatives.
Theseus was so damn handsome that Ariadne swooned when she first saw his mostly naked Greek body, and disregarding all the restrictive social rules, tossed circumspection to the winds and threw herself at him, promising everything for the sake of his embrace. "Sure, I'll respect you in the morning, Sweetheart. Now find me the magic ball of string so I can outfox your bullheaded brother the Minotaur." Off with the Minotaur's head, and off with Theseus the besotted Ariadne runs, sure that he will marry her as promised because after all, wasn't she his greatest fan and didn't he give her some jewels to show how much he loved her? Getting up from her bed on the Isle of Naxos, Theseus quietly picks up his shoes and shield and tiptoes out, setting sail into the sunrise with the Minotaur's life and Ariadne's virginity.
"And that's what happens to girls who fool around outside of marriage," my mother would have observed. "She should have taken a cold shower and found something productive to do. And he should have worn decent clothes."
Decency came under fire in the sixties as repressive, old-fashioned (old-fashionedness also having been put outside to rust with the washtub and scrubbing board), and not nearly as profitable as spice and daring.
"Make love, not war" was a phrase loudly condemned by parents and grandparents, but pounced upon by the comfortably well-off children who went off to college and realized that they were out of their mother's sight or the reach of daddy's shotgun. As they got away with the sexual experimentation, more people said, "Hey, why not? Who's to know? Who's to care?" Nice girls who didn't found themselves without dates, while the bad girls who did seemed to prosper and bloom, with plenty of entertainment and company. Boys stopped worrying about marrying the home town girl next door -- as they say, "Why buy a cow if the milk's free?"
I know that's an over-simplification. But here's another: had I not been exposed to the mechanics of sexuality by the book Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (courtesy of Helen Martin, who bought the book unknown to her parents and kept it in her locker at school) I probably wouldn't have been so inclined to seduce the class salutatorian to liven up an evening of boredom the summer before I went off to college, and had I taken the old social mores to heart, I wouldn't have become James' lover; he would have gone elsewhere to find his free milk and my late twenties wouldn't have been spent in hiding, ashamed of my foolishness and my sexuality.
There really was a time in which brassiere ads didn't take up a full page in the newspaper, and disposable douche was not something casually mentioned in public, let alone in commercials between early evening game shows. Shampoos were meant to clean hair, not induce the abandoned cries of sexual satisfaction. Mothers weren't expected to take their daughters to the doctor for prescriptions of birth control pills before they would learn to drive a car.
Now everything is shown and known and blown up to cover movie screens (doesn't it bother Gwyneth Paltrow to know that most of the people in the western world have seen her tits?) and ads for penile enhancement can be found on page two of the Gazette or invasively cluttering up one's e-mail. "Seven Sex Secrets to Make Him Your Slave!" scream the women's magazines, and in perusing a copy of Vogue recently, I irritably counted no less than fifty models posing with their legs spread as though inviting sex, with another nine presenting their buttocks as a macaque does while in estrus, although only four were pulling the low waistline of their pants down in front a la Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, in their ongoing contest to see which will show stubble on a shaven mons.
In the deepest part of my formed heart, I believe that the restrictive moral code I was taught as a child was of value to society, and the warnings and fables of what would happen if you stepped outside the lines are true. Pandora dragged every damned thing in the world out of that damned box, and now we live with it day to day. And in the deepest part of my objective mind, I also know that the way I chose to live my life was aligned more with the problem, not the solution to the pains we suffer as a result.