The Age of Innocence

Chapter 1

“Scottie, honey, I don’t see the trash cans out at the curb. You have about two minutes and the trucks will be here. You don’t want a repeat of last week, do you?”

No, I certainly didn’t. At 13, one of the things you hate most—and there are a lot of things you hate most at 13—is being embarrassed. We have fragile egos at 13. Well, I do, at least. And last week . . . well, I don’t like to think about it.

My job, one of the hundreds my slave-driver mother has nailed me with, is to put the trashcans out in the street by the curb on pickup day. I tend to wait till the last minute on things I have to do but don’t like doing. Rolling those bins out there is high on my don’t-like-doing list. It isn’t all that hard a job, but it’s boring, and mostly I don’t like to be told I have to do something. Anyway, I have better ways to spend my time. So, as usual, I put trash-bin hauling off and put it off, and then my mom yells at me, and reminding me of last week, like I really need to remember that.

That reminder wasn’t very fair. She knew that would rattle my cage. That was rotten of her. But my mom was very capable of that, being rotten. Not so much my dad, who kinda understood what being human was all about, but Mom . . . she was devious. She had sneak attacks down pat. I could hear it in her voice. ‘Repeat of last week.’ What I immediately thought of, which I was sure she knew, was what she’d seen. I thought of her picturing it. Evil thoughts came to mind. Vengeful thoughts. It was a good thing she was my mother. Anyone else would have been in for a world of nasties from yours truly. But you really can’t go too far with your mother, can you? Not when you’re 13 and still have to live with her for a few more years.

But I did remember last week. I’d been procrastinating. What boy my age doesn’t? It’s one of our best things; we have it down to a science. If I ever have to write a resumé, procrastinating will be one of the skill sets I’ll list, if I don’t put it off. But enough about resumé. I was talking about being embarrassed and taking out the trash.

So a week ago, just about at this time of day, I heard three things pretty much simultaneously: the lumbering of the trash truck coming down the street, the sound of the men walking behind it dragging or tossing the emptied cans back by the curb where they’d picked them up, and my mom’s sweet voice.

“Scottie, here they come. Get ours out there. NOW!”

Well, that tone of voice told me this was no time to argue. The problem was, I’d just come out of the bathroom after my shower and was still drying myself. A glance out my upstairs bedroom window told me I had about forty seconds to get downstairs, run out to the garage, grab a handle on each of the two cans, and drag them out to the street. They have wheels on them, so it’s manageable to take two at once if I’m careful and don’t let either tip to the side and fall over.

Taking them to the street was a job that would take just barely a minute. Meaning, I didn’t even have time to put on my robe. I could only wrap the towel around me that I was drying myself with and secure it as well as I could on the fly as I flew down the stairs, probably only hitting every third step with each footfall.

Good thing I had that skill well-practiced. One I’d probably have forgotten to list on that resumé.

So I’d hit the floor at the bottom of the stairs running, tearing through the kitchen and out the door. Raced to the garage and grabbed the handles of the two roller bins, then turned to drag them after me as I ran toward the curb.

The truck was just about there. It’d be neck and neck. That truck didn‘t stop for anything. The bins had to be there or they’d just go past. I saw the men walking behind. They saw me. They were grinning. Probably thinking what an easy day they’d have if they got to pass our house by. Our trash unthrown.

I heard a barking sound, but my whole body and soul was into getting to that curb before the men passed by. And I made it!

By the skin of my teeth, I had those bins there just as the men arrived! I’d done it!

And then I found out what the barking was.

The Gilmans’ dog was a Jack Russell. He and I were pals. The Gilmans were old, their dog was young, and so was I. So when it came to walking him, playing with him, wrestling with him—that was me. His name was Joe, and he liked me as much as I liked him. And one of his favorite games was tug of war. He loved that! I think grabbing something and worrying it and thrashing and tugging it was in his genes. We’d had many a battle, Joe and I, doing just that. I weighed almost a hundred pounds; he weighed about fifteen. It always amazed me how strong he was. If we were tussling over a rag or towel or rope, I could lift him up in the air and he’d hang on with his teeth, growling like a motorcycle in full roar.

The barking I’d heard was Joe. He’d seen me and shed his collar that Mr. Gilman had him on and raced over to say hello. Which was fine, except he saw my towel and thought, ‘Hey, Scottie wants to play!’ He latched onto that towel and yanked.

“No!” I yelled at him, panicky, but of course that was useless. He had the end of my towel, was shaking and yanking it, and off it came. Then he scampered away, taking my towel with him.

So there I am, naked, two trash men laughing their asses off, Mr. Gilman smiling and acting like he’s turning away and not looking but not really doing either, my mom in the front window watching, and Joe shaking the towel just out of my reach, wanting me to chase him.

Chase him! Yeah, right! Boys my age have a finely honed sense of modesty. That sense is better developed than they are. We are well aware that our bodies are changing, we’re very conscious that we don’t have what we will in another year or so, and we HATE anyone seeing us in this unfinished state. We also know how silly and impotent we look if we cover up with our hands in front of our privates or with our legs together at the knees.

There was no way I was going to look dignified in that situation. I could only think of one thing to do that wasn’t horrifyingly humiliating. Just run. And I did. I turned and fled from the scene of the crime. Ran for the back of my house where no one could see me.

I didn’t totally escape mortification, however. Because Joe raced after me with the towel, his usual playful growl playing a soundtrack to my fleeing footsteps.

No, I didn’t want a repeat of last week. At least this time I was dressed. So I calmly descended from my room, walked outside, and manhandled the two bins to the curb. I could just barely hear the truck rumbling up the street.

I’d come prepared, too. I’d picked up a dog biscuit on my way through the kitchen. Joe was there for his morning walk and slipped his collar easily when he saw me. He jumped into my arms and found the biscuit where I’d hidden it in my shirt pocket. He knew my wiles. I knew his, too, and got the expected slobbering face wash from his excited tongue.

≈≈ ≈≈

Things I hate. I mentioned one of the biggies. Being embarrassed. I mean, a kid my age wants to be cool. Some want to shine; some prefer the background. But all of us want to be cool. Being embarrassed isn’t being cool. It’s awkward and demeaning and shows us not to be in control of ourselves and hangs our insecurities out on display for everyone passing by. We hate being embarrassed, and so many things embarrass us. Irony. That’s sort of what Mrs. Meyers said what irony meant in class last year. It seemed sort of complicated to me. But the fact we hate being embarrassed and it takes so little to cause us embarrassment is ironic, isn’t it?

What embarrasses us? Simple things, like, well, being told our hair looks peculiar. I can spend a half hour getting it just right, and some girl at school will point at it and laugh. That’s enough to ruin my whole day. So I have bushy, unkempt hair. So do half the boys in my class. Why laugh at me? I hate being laughed at. Another hate for my list.

Then there are girls. Girls are what embarrass boys most often. They don’t even have to do anything to embarrass us. Just being girls is enough.

They have these chests. When we were younger, girls looked pretty much like we did. Then, in fourth grade, some of them started growing boobs. By the fifth grade, almost all of them had something going on up there. We had a hard time not looking, and seeing those things was embarrassing. No one ever said being a boy was easy.

What was it about boobs that was so embarrassing? I didn’t have a clue, just knew looking at them gave us funny feelings. Sometimes we’d get boners.

Boners. Talk about embarrassing! I was getting them all the time now. In Sex Ed we’d been told that was normal. But being normal didn’t mean it wasn’t embarrassing. All of us were embarrassed by them. How did I know that? Because we all tried to hide them. If we weren’t embarrassed by them, we wouldn’t have done that. So, even though we all had that same problem, and we all knew we all had it, and even some of the girls certainly knew about it—some girls had brothers, and I assumed they were in on our secret—we still didn’t want anyone to know when we had one.

I need to stop writing about this. It’s starting to make me mad. I tend to get mad more often now than I did when I was younger. Maybe it’s because I was so sure of myself when I was eight and nine and ten, and I’m not now. Everything is changing, and that’s something I hate, too. I’m taller, I have hair growing but not a lot, and that’s embarrassing because it shows anyone who can see it that I’m changing. I can’t control my voice. Luckily, I don’t have acne but am worried I will, and, well, my dad gave me some deodorant and told me to shower at least once a day and twice would be better, and so that’s embarrassing, too, that he must think I stink. That’s another reason to be angry. I never used to stink.

Girls act differently now, too. They used to be very much like us and there wasn’t any friction talking to a girl. Friction doesn’t sound like the right word, but if I stop to figure out a better one, I’ll be here all day. I could ask Troy. He’d know. Anyway, now? Damn. Girls run in packs, they’re always whispering while looking at you, and talking to just one of them is about impossible. And, as mentioned, they have those chests, and I’d swear, not one of them is just nice and friendly; they’re all still play-acting most of the time, especially in those clusters they run in. I’m a fairly self-confident boy, probably average, but if a girl comes up to talk to me now, I get all flustered. Especially when they ask me if I like Barb.

I don’t even know Barb. I know two Barbs. And I’m indifferent about both of them. I’ve never had a romantic thought about either one of them. But I’d been asked a question, and how should I answer it? I do not want to be like the girls and play-act. Pretend. That’s not me. That isn’t boys, for that matter. With us, you get what you see. We’re honest. Straightforward. But with a question like that, it almost demands a hedged answer. While I don’t dislike, or like, either Barb, I don’t want to hurt their feelings, either.

This is summer, and I don’t have much to do with girls in the summer, so the last time I was asked about Barb was at the end of seventh grade last year. How did I answer? I thought I was pretty clever. I looked Maryann—the inquisitor—in the eye and said, “Wouldn’t you like to know!” and walked away. Hah!

It would probably get worse in a week when school started again. I’d be around all those girls again, and their chests would probably be bigger. Well, I was taller, meaning the jacket I’d carry would be longer, and would cover me better if needed as I dangled it from my arm, walking to my next class.

≈≈ ≈≈

I’d spent the summer so far mostly goofing off, just hanging, almost always with Troy. He was my best friend. Every boy of thirteen needs a best friend, and luckily, we both had one—each other. Troy sounds like the name of a god or at least a hero. My Troy was about five-feet-two-inches tall and weighed maybe seventy-five pounds on a good day. He wore glasses and wasn’t athletic. But he was smart, he had a great sense of humor, he wasn’t shy, and, maybe best of all, he liked me a lot. That’s a great quality in a best friend.

A lot of boys my age didn’t just have a best friend; they ran in a posse. Troy and I weren’t like that. I had him, he had me, and that was enough.

We were very close, as thirteen-year-old boys tend to be with their best friends. We were facing the challenges of changes together. We could discuss anything with each other—and did. That was another reason for our closeness; we didn’t need to be embarrassed with each other. Something that would embarrass us with any other person was just another misfortune we took in stride and were actually pleased our friend was with us to help us get through it. Because of my suddenly taller frame, I was clumsy now. Troy didn’t laugh at me when I tripped or bumped into things or dropped them. I didn’t laugh at him, either, although he hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet and so wasn’t as clumsy as I was.

I wouldn’t have liked it if he’d been around on the trash day my mom had reminded me about, the time when I’d had my tussle with Joe, but if he had, it wouldn’t have bothered me. We’d seen each other naked. We changed in my room into our bathing suits before going to the community pool. No way we wanted any part of the dressing room there. Mostly, it was okay in there, but sometimes not. There were older kids there, and sometimes, in the showers, they teased the younger ones. Or bullied them, to get to the heart of it. So we avoided that. There was a shower outside on the deck, and we rinsed off there before going in the pool. Showering was a rule.

But getting naked in my room, we did that. We even looked at each other. He commented on the fact I had pubes now. Very, very sparse pubes, but a sign of things to come, certainly. He was still bare. His voice wasn’t changing yet, either. But he didn’t let it bother him. He said his dad had been slow to start, too, and he could either be self-conscious about it and let it bother him, or he could go with the flow. “I’m taking my father’s advice; I’m going with the flow,” he told me, and he was. With Troy, nothing was an act. Well, he was a boy, and I’ve already given my opinion on boys and play-acting . No reason to repeat it.

I was five-foot seven now. I’d been Troy’s height at the beginning of summer. He said he was a little uncomfortable with how I’d shot up past him, but I was still me, and he’d probably be taller when we were both grown, so he wasn’t going to sweat it. “My dad is taller than yours. If one of us is a shrimp, it won’t be me. So you’d better not pick on me now because you’ll only be bigger for a year or so, and then I’ll have the rest of our lives to avenge myself.”

Hah! Yes, his father was an inch taller than mine, but my mom was as tall as my father and his mother was short. He was conveniently forgetting that. I didn’t remind him. Being a best friend often meant not taking the starch out of your buddy. That’s what my mom called it when you talked down to someone. She said it was the best way she knew of breaking up a friendship. So I didn’t—with Troy. I wouldn’t have anyway, even without the laundry-product talk. I made a conscious effort to be nice to people. Especially Troy. Well, maybe not so much with Maryann, but you had to act differently with girls. It wasn’t play-acting, either. It was being real.

Troy said he got boners, too, looking at girls’ chests. I’d never seen him with a boner. And vice versa. We were close, but not that close. Jeez! We did talk about, uh, relieving the tension. He did that. So did I. But who didn’t? They’d covered that in our Sex Ed class, too. Good thing they had segregated classes! I wouldn’t want all those girls knowing what we did. Just another thing to be embarrassed about.

Of course, there was another way to think about that, and I’d had that thought just recently. I figured if they knew we all did that, it should be less embarrassing, right? It was just a boy thing. If only three or four of us were doing it, and we were pointed out, now that would take some big cojones to live down. But, with it being universal, we were all normal, and normal isn’t embarrassing. So, as long as the girls didn’t mention it to us, nor we to them, either, we were safe. Just their knowing shouldn’t be a thing. So maybe when they did learn we did that, when they were married with three kids, maybe, but certainly not before they were done with high school, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Doing that thing we did wasn’t like boners at all. They probably didn’t know about them, but if they started noticing us walking around with tents in our trousers, there was no way we could keep them secret for long. Maybe this year, the way girls gossip, it might become common knowledge we were walking horn dogs and our parts were leading the way much too often. Why did I always pop one just before class ended and I had to leave my seat? Weird. But true. That’s why taking a jacket or sweater or a large notebook with me was such a vital thing. Even if some girl knew and was looking for it, I was still covering up. Knowing and seeing were two different things entirely.

See, that’s another way we’re different. They didn’t hide those chests. I heard a lot of them even made them bigger with inserts of tissue paper or socks or something. And wore as tight a blouse as they could get away with. So why were we hiding? If they were advertising, shouldn’t we? It was something to think about. I do know one thing, though. Even if my reasoning about this was sound, as I was sure it was, I wasn’t going to be the first to try to start a trend.

I mentioned all this to Troy. We were in my bedroom. We’d been playing a video game. One thing I’ll say about that and then never speak about it again: Troy is aces at video games, and I’m not. So that’s that. ’Nuff said. So we were on the bed, just talking. As anyone might guess with what’s come before this, I have an awful lot rattling around in my head these days. Talking about some of it with Troy helps. Though he does most of the talking. I’ve never liked talking much. But for most boys, talking was like a steam-pressure relief valve. Heaven knows we can’t talk to our parents about any of this stuff. The idea is just nonsense. Especially to a mom. Maybe I could, with my dad. If I ever have a real problem with anything, he’s who I’d go to. Mom is like the boss of the family and the rule maker and authority figure. Except . . . Well, I’ll go into that later. We were on my bed.

“What do you think, Troy? I just realized, we always hide our boners, and girls always show you their boobs. Well, under their shirts, but still, they’re right out there, begging to be viewed. Those girls know we’re looking. We look at their boobs more than at their eyes. Yet they don’t hide them. If it weren’t for the dress code, I think half of them would be showing us all sorts of cleavage. They do at the mall! They do when you see them in a theater, or McDonalds. Yet we always cover up. If they can display their assets, why can’t we?”

Troy turned his head to look at me. We were sitting next to each other, both with our backs to my headboard. Our shoulders weren’t touching, though. There are unwritten rules about being on a bed with another boy. That’s one of the main ones: no body parts making contact. Being together there, that’s fine. Comforting, even. But touching’s a no-no.

If I ever have a kid, a boy—which is unlikely because I’m almost certain I’ll die a virgin considering my timidity when it comes to girls—trying to remember all this stuff he’ll need explained to him will be hard. It’s one reason I’m writing this down now.

Troy shook his head. “Display our assets? What, you’ve grown down there since the last time we were changing? We don’t display our assets because it would be too humiliating. You and I’d get hard, we’ll throw a one-inch tent. If anyone of the female persuasion even noticed we were hard, they’d probably snicker. No, we’re much better off being men of mystery. They have no idea; they can only imagine, and they probably imagine more there than really is. Hiding it with a jacket probably makes them think there’s a lot to hide.”

“One inch? You’re unexaggerating.”

“Do you mean underplaying? Deprecating? Trivializing?”

I think I already mentioned Troy was smart. I am, too, but he’s got a wicked vocabulary. I don’t. I don’t measure up to Troy in much of anything but size. Body size.

“I mean I’m way more than one inch. Aren’t you?” There! Throw it back in his face. The truth is, I have no idea how big he gets. I only know we’re comparable when soft. And an inch isn’t too far off.

He grins at me and switches the subject back to girls. “We learned about bodies way back in fourth grade. Learned the names of body parts. Both girls’ and boys’. Learned what would happen to our bodies in puberty. Learned that girls’ breasts would grow and that it would be starting about then for a lot of them. Remember? Very little was said about penises growing, but then, our teacher was a lady. But about breasts? Yeah. She seemed to like talking about them. Familiar territory? Maybe. Or maybe she liked seeing us squirm. I saw Eddie throw one, just listening to her going on about nipples and areolas, and I think she saw it, too.

“Anyway, see, the girls have nothing to be embarrassed about and in fact are probably proud to be showing that they’re well on their way to becoming women.”

“Good thing no girls were in our Sex Ed class! Talk about squirming! So, back to my point, shouldn’t we be proud we’re becoming men? Can’t we show evidence of that, too?”

“Scottie, Scottie, Scottie!” he said, the words leaking exasperation around their edges. “The girls are showing how they’ll look for the rest of their lives as women. Boners aren’t something we’ll sport all the time—although it sort of seems they might right now—and symbolize our sexuality and sexual natures. So breasts are part of being a normal, everyday woman, and boners show we want to have sex, we’re thinking about having sex, and that we have no control over those thoughts or our body parts. It’s not the same thing at all!”

“Well, when you put it that way . . .”

He scrunched up higher on the headboard; we had the tendency to slip down the longer we lay there. Sitting next to each other on the bed was much more appropriate than lying on our backs next to each other. “By the way,” he said, nonchalantly, assuming the talk of flaunting our boners was past, “I’m thinking of telling Alyson I like her when school starts. I’ve been dreaming of her a lot lately.”

Wow! Now that was news. I never really thought of Troy as having any interest in dating, in girls. Being a player. I didn’t think he was gay, but if he’d told me over breakfast he was asexual, I’d have nodded and just kept crunching my Cheerios. So this was a big deal. Doubly so because where did he get the nerve to tell a girl he liked her? I wouldn’t have the nerve to do that, not that there were any girls I felt that way about. That was still to come. But he was displaying courage I didn’t have. I hardly had the nerve to study those breasts when the girls knew that’s where my eyes were looking. I did look, but I didn’t stare. Staring was for the less timid boys.

Did this mean Troy would suddenly be dating, be spending all his time on the phone with one girl after another, would be going to the movies and burger hangouts with them? He was supposed to do that with me! Did this mean my time with him would be limited? I felt a little sliver of worry working its way into my stomach. This wasn’t good.

I hate changes!