The Age of Innocence

Chapter 3

First day of the last year of middle school. Lina said it was called Junior High where she’d been before. That was in the Midwest somewhere, Dubuque or Des Moines or Davenport, some town like that. Someplace I’d never heard of. Omaha, maybe. Hadn’t heard of that one, either.

She said there were people and buildings and lakes and restaurants and all sorts of regular things and to stop being so provincial.

I hated it when she used words I didn’t know. Having a friend who was a girl who was stronger than you was bad enough. Smarter, too? That could do serious damage to a boy’s ego. I wondered why I always ended up with smart friends. If they were all smarter than I was, maybe it was because I was dumb.

It was early afternoon. We’d had our welcome-back assembly. That was followed by ten-minute sessions in all the classes we’d be taking, just getting to know where they were and how to get to them quickly, what the teacher looked like and for them to take roll and see who we were. Then we’d been told to go outside to the expansive grassy lawn behind the school where some Gym activities would be held when classes began and where, close to the school, there were tables for eating lunch if the weather was friendly. As this was Southern California, the weather was nice about ninety-eight percent of the time, even in the winter. Then just a light jacket would be enough.

The reason we were to go out there was the school was strong on everyone getting involved in something other than classes. This school didn’t seem to like loners. They wanted everyone to be out among other kids doing something. So, there was a large variety of clubs one could join, and this was a recruiting period. The clubs had tables set up with club members talking to us as we wandered around, trying to get us to sign up. There were the usual ones: photography, chess, creative writing, dance, cheerleading, drama, cooking—the list went on and on.

I was walking with Lina. She was in my homeroom and several of my classes. Now that Troy was wasting his time with Alyson, this was the best I could do so as not to look companionless. You don’t want to get that rep in middle school. You need someone to eat lunch with and hang with, and Lina didn’t have anyone else yet. So I was doing her a favor. That was the proper way to look at it. I guess I should have been worrying about when she didn’t need me for that any longer, but so far that hadn’t happened, and I was hoping it wouldn’t.

Lina and I were to share most of our classes. This school didn’t have AP classes, otherwise we might not have shared as many as we were going to this year. I was happy with that. Lina would be a fine substitute for Troy, and it was possible that boys, seeing her and me together, would get the idea I had a girlfriend, and . . . well, where was the harm? Boys want street cred when they’re thirteen. And it would keep girls from coming on to me. I wouldn’t have a clue how to play that, and would just as soon wait for next year when I’d be way more mature and prepared for girls to happen.

Lina stopped at a table that didn’t seem to have any crowd around it. Just a girl and boy behind the table, looking lonely or sad or disappointed or something of that nature. Maybe it was bored. They had the requisite sign in front of the table; theirs said ‘Join the ABC. Make a difference.’

Lina looked at their sign and asked, “What does ABC stand for, and why the picture of two boys looking baleful?”

I wished she’d stop doing that. If I continued to hang with her, I’d have to add a dictionary app to my phone.

I knew the girl. She was an eighth grader like I was; her name was Amy. She turned to look at the boy and I guess saw that he didn’t want to talk because she turned back to us and spoke. “It’s a new club we’re forming this year. The letters stand for Anti-Bullying Club. We want to get a lot of members. They can be part of the effort to stop bullying here. If they see bullying, they can report it, and if the bullies know they’ll be ratted out, maybe they’ll control themselves.”

Lina asked, “Are the members going to actually stop any bullying they witness? Are they going to get physically involved? I’d like to do that.”

I rolled my eyes.

“That isn’t what we’re meant to do,” Amy told her. “I don’t think many kids would sign up if they knew they were supposed to break up fights. When I got approval for forming the club, the vice principal said we couldn’t do more than report what we see.”

“Well, if some kid is getting beat up, I think club members should rally around and stop it. Not go talk to someone. The mayhem would be over by the time they got back.”

I was watching the boy while Lina was spouting off. He was smaller, probably an incoming sixth grader. He looked uncomfortable. He was working hard not to meet my eyes. I had a sudden thought. When Lina stopped to take a breath, I asked the boy his name.

“Noah,” he said.

“You’re new here?”

He nodded, but when I kept looking at him without speaking, he reluctantly said, “Yeah.”

“Were you bullied last year in elementary?”

Noah turned away from me. Amy spoke instead. “We don’t want that happening here. This is a place that should be safe for everyone. Will you join, Scottie? Please.” Then she turned to Lina. “You, too? We need girls as well as boys. My name’s Amy.”

“Eileen,” Lina said, “but I prefer Lina. Sure, I’ll join. Scottie will, too. He hates bullies.”

I looked at her. She was right, but I didn’t remember ever telling her that. I had told her about my mother and my feelings about how there should be fairness in the world. Maybe she was extrapolating.

Hey, I do know a few big words! Jeez! I learned that one in math last year.

But I couldn’t let her get away with talking for me. “What do you mean, ‘I will, too’?”

“You believe in fair play. So do I. So we’re joining. From the look of the sign-in sheet, we might be lonely. We’re the only ones so far. We’ll be busy, taking care of all those bullies by ourselves.” She grinned and wiggled her eyebrows.

“So far,” said Amy, and she smiled, probably sympathetically with Lina. I’d always liked Amy. She was no-nonsense and didn’t play the games like many of her kind did. Her kind being of the female persuasion.

I looked at Noah again. He was almost hiding behind Amy now, and I reached for the signup sheet. Yeah, I could see standing up for him. He wouldn’t have a chance against some of the big kids in school, and I wanted him to know that at least one of them—me—would be there looking out for him. I could be a safe haven if someone were giving him grief. I should tell him that, but not in front of the girls. It’s so easy for a young boy to be embarrassed, and I didn’t want to do that. I could see he was scared stiff of being in this school. So I might easily compound that by telling him he could run to me for help with the girls listening. He’d hate that. No, I wasn’t going to do that. It would be belittling for him. That message was just for him and later in private.

We both did sign the sheet. “Good luck with this,” I said and got a smile from her.

Lina and I walked home together. Well, we did live across the street from each other. It would have been odd not to walk together. What? I’d walk five feet behind her all the way home? Actually, I didn’t need to be defensive about being with her. I liked Lina. Not as a sexual object, of course. I mean, there was the boob thing to consider, and boys do have their standards.

We were getting to be very good friends. I decided this might be a good time to discuss something that was bothering me a little. That’s what friends were for, to be able to talk about things that are bothering or perplexing you.

“Hey, you see we’re doing two things this year for the first time in mixed groups, all together: Sex Ed and Gym. What’s that all about, anyway?” I’d found it was wise to get her opinion on something before telling her mine. I could always tell Troy what I was thinking, and he’d agree. That wasn’t the case with Lina. Much safer to let her go first.

“Doesn’t seem like a big thing to me,” she responded. “Why should Sex Ed be separated? We all need the same information. And who knows? Maybe the discussions will be more interesting. Maybe some boys will man up enough to talk in there instead of sitting with their legs pressed together and their hands in their laps.”

“Hey, we don’t do that!”

“You don’t?”

“Of course not.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard. I heard that when they’re talking about jerking off and getting boners, you all do that. Don’t want anyone seeing your tiny wee tents. Or knowing that you jerk off! Boys are so strange.”

She laughed. Man. This girl was seriously from the dark side.

“You’re not supposed to know about any of this. I mean, this is personal stuff!” I was disappointed she did know. That they did! Maybe a little shell-shocked, too. They knew about boners? How much did they know? Did they know about us getting them spontaneously and for no reason and not because we were thinking about sex? That it was a body function, an involuntary one, like blinking or farting. Or did they think boners only happened because we were thinking dirty thoughts?

Maybe it would be good if they had Sex Ed with us and we could make sure they understood those things weren’t our fault. If they knew that, maybe we wouldn’t need to be so embarrassed. That was something to think about.

“Know about boners? Of course we do. How’re you supposed to make babies if you don’t have boners? When we learned what you have to do to produce a baby, we learned about penises, how they were sometimes soft and sometimes hard and needed to be hard to do that baby-making. We were told all about that and how boys our age get hard a lot and are embarrassed and cover them up so no one will laugh at them. They told us it wasn’t polite to stare at boys’ crotches because it would embarrass them and that boys have very fragile egos at this age, so we needed to be careful with them. But she got a wicked glint in her eyes when she said it, followed with, ‘Of course, if you do stare at their crotches, and you make it obvious you’re doing that, it’s a good way to get to see what a boner in a boy’s pants looks like.’”

“You’re making this up. Well, some of it. I suppose you’re right when you say getting boners at inappropriate times is a little embarrassing!”

Her grin told me I was right, that this all came from her imagination. Had to; I couldn’t believe any teacher would talk like that. “Yeah,” she said, “just like boobs were embarrassing at first. From what I’ve seen. I don’t have to worry about that yet and doubt I’ll be upset when I get them. I’m in no hurry. I think playing soccer, all that running, wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if those things were bouncing around on me and making me top-heavy. What’s it like, running with a boner? You do get boners, don’t you? Or is that another of your abnormalities.”

“What abnormalities? I don’t have any of those.”

“Sure you do, Mr. Crushless. And, by the way, I don’t believe that for a second. But I know you’re embarrassed to talk about it. Why, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because you know I’ll ask who you like and then will embarrass you and threaten to tell her. I’ll have you under my thumb even more than I do now.”

“I’m not under your thumb,” I said indignantly.

“Okay, you can think that. Free country and all. So, don’t change the subject. What’s it like running with all these boners you admitted you have?”

“I didn’t admit anything of the kind!”

“Ah, you’re denying you have boners, yet insist you’re normal. Next, you’ll be trying to tell me you don’t jerk off.”

This girl could put me on the defensive in the blink of an eye. I had to get her on the defensive so I could get off it. “I’m not denying anything. I’m just resisting getting too personal. Also, I’m just trying to figure out why a girl who says she has no interest at all in penises is so interested in boners, or even worse, in my boners.” There, that ought to do it. All I had to do now was to stop feeling weird from saying ‘penises’ to her. I’d never used that word out loud before and certainly not to a girl!

“I’m not more or less interested in penises than in anything else. I am interested in you because you’re so odd. Most boys your age love to brag about their bigger-than-normal size, their vast experience with girls, anything at all to do with sex. You seem to avoid the subject. I’m thinking you’re either asexual or trying to hide something, and I’m working on fixing that. So, about your boners . . .”

We’d just reached home. Just in time. I didn’t respond, just waved at her and walked up to the front door and went in. Whew!

≈≈ ≈≈

We walked to school, too, of course. I hoped the discussion the next day would be different. It was, mostly.

Lina was as talkative as usual. “You asked me about mixed gym classes,” she said before we’d even moved out of sight of our houses. She must have prepped herself. “I love the idea. A lot of girls don’t want to mix it up physically. Might break a nail or muss their hair. I love playing sports, and if it gets rough, I’ll get rough, too. Because of all the time I’ve spent in gymnastics practice, I’m in better shape and stronger than just about any of the boys, and I love the games they play much more than what the girls do. Flag football. Dodge ball. Kick ball. I’m really looking forward to these. I hope they have mixed teams. No reason at all the girls shouldn’t be included in those.”

“I’m not really into that.”

“Why not?”

“Well, my friend Troy wasn’t, and I hung with him, and we just didn’t. I don’t like being bumped around like you do.”

“Not all sports include that. Football, soccer, wrestling, basketball—those are rough, yeah. Swimming, though, and tennis and track-and-field events—those aren’t rough at all.”

“Yeah, maybe. I’ve just never been that competitive. I like reading. I’ve written a few stories, and that’s more fun than heaving a shot put shot.”

“What about music? Acting? Drawing? All those creative arts? You into any of those?”

“Uh, not really.”

“You’re not into anything, are you? You’re a weenie!”

“Hey. That isn’t very nice.”

“Well, tell me then. You can’t be that anemic. Something must turn you on, get your heart going and your blood rushing, maybe even give you one of those boners you don’t like to talk about. What gets you excited, Scottie? What makes you enthusiastic?”

I had to think about that. The fact was, I was a very mild kid. Didn’t have many enthusiasms. Nothing really got me going with any sort of passion. I liked a lot of things a little bit, but off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of anything that really got me going.

What did I want? What made me happy? What would make me happy?

I suppose most people could answer that easily. I couldn’t. I guess I’d just wanted my life to continue as it was. Sort of blah, but no real problems, either. Everything was fine.

Lina was looking at me expectantly as I mulled this over. I was about to tell her there was nothing I especially liked and I didn’t need anything to change. But then a thought crossed my mind. I grabbed onto it and mentally kicked it around. Yes, there was something I wanted. I just realized it.

“I do like thinking about boobs. That turns me on. Well, a little. But I’d like to be more involved with them.” I must have smiled or my eyes changed or something, because Lina was all over it.

“Boobs, huh. You’re not really that shallow, Scottie. I know you’re not. You’d have bored the snot out of me if you were one of those guys only interested in girls for their anatomy, and you’re not. I suppose it’s normal for a thirteen-year-old boy to be interested in boobs. Tell you what. Go online and look up naked girls and click the Images button. You’ll see tons of naked boobs. And I’ll bet you however much money you wish to lose, that before you get to the bottom of the page, you’ll be spending more time looking at the girls’ faces than their boobs.

“Even at your age, you know the difference between wanting to know a girl for her personality and interests and nature. What she’s into and how smart she is. Those are much more interesting than how she looks naked. You see her naked, and it registers, and after that, it isn’t what’s important. It won’t hold your attention more than five minutes. You do see that, don’t you?”

I had to think about that. She seemed to be holding me to a higher standard than I was holding myself to.

“You know I’m thirteen, don’t you?” Maybe that would buy me some time.

“Yeah. Time to start acting it.”

“I am acting it. I’m superficial. I’m supposed to be. Mature comes later. Years later.”

She scoffed at me. “I expect more than that from you. You’re smarter than you think. You’re just lazy. Look, don’t disappoint me. Think again. What do you want? Not boobs. Something more. Something grander. Come on. Don’t let me down.”

I’d never met anyone like her. And to my surprise, I didn’t want to let her down. Could I be more than I was? Could I? Did I want to be? Well, I didn’t want to disappoint her. Maybe it was her telling me I was more than I thought I was. It was hard to turn my back on that. I’d never had high expectations. She seemed to think I should.

Well, okay. So I didn’t say anything, and we just kept walking. She didn’t talk either, giving me some space.

I thought and thought and let my mind drift, and it drifted, and the question of what I wanted floated around, and then . . .

“Aha! Okay, what? Give.”

Damn. She was quick. She could read me like a book—a child’s picture book. But I didn’t want to give! This was personal. Why was she always getting into my space?! Boys are allowed their private space. We shouldn’t have to tell all our thoughts. I knew, however, I had to say something. “Oh, it was nothing. Just a passing thought I had. Unimportant, trivial, uninteresting, unmentionable.”

She gave me a look. “Are you ticklish, Scottie.”

“Not very. Why?”

“Well, you have two choices. I either tickle it out of you or beat it out of you. Whichever, and in the end you’ll talk. I’d rather do the tickle one because some boys get hard when I do that. I could check out your abnormality that way. But either way works for me. Or, you can avoid the abuse altogether and just tell me. You know you will in the end, anyway.”

“It’s silly. You’ll laugh at me.”

“I won’t. This is something that’s important to you, important enough to not want to talk about it. I respect that. Now talk.”

We kept walking and I kept quiet for an entire block, but she was staring at me and the pressure built. That’s the sort of stare she’d developed. I wondered at her past victims. There had to be some.

But she was right: no way I could hold off forever.

“Okay. Okay. But this is just you and me. This goes anywhere else, we aren’t friends any longer.”

She didn’t say a word, just crossed her heart with her finger.

“The one thing I’d like to have, and this is just a vague feeling based on who knows what, has to do with what I’ve been feeling lately. Not before. Well, not long before, but lately, well, okay, I feel sexy all the time now. Hormones, from what was said in Sex Ed, and we all feel that. But what I want, I guess, is someone to be sexy with. I haven’t a clue about who. I don’t dream of anyone. I don’t even fantasize. But I have all these urges and no one to share them with. I’d like someone to like me, kinda like Alyson likes Troy. I’m not sure it’s even sex I want. I think it’s the intimacy more than that. I want to share my feelings with someone who’s feeling the same things I am at the same time I am. Yeah, ideally, that’ll lead to sex, but sex is only part of it. It’s that person, and how we feel about each other, that’s what’s important.”

She was watching my face as I was talking. That was a little disconcerting. But when I was done, she said, “Are you sure you’re thirteen? What you just said is more mature than thirteen. More mature than anything you’ve said since I’ve met you.”

I had the perfect answer for that. I almost laughed saying it. “Yeah, but remember, I’m abnormal.”