Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kiddie Porn

Terry Johnson has been my best friend since junior high school. Like any good friend, he mailed me a VCR movie of his knee surgery.

Without introduction (which is to say, without warning), the movie opened with his raw kneecap surrounded by pulsing red and cream meat. A magnified pair of tweezers and two gleaming silver picks were rearranging this tendon and that, as one might pick through a plate of spaghetti.

It took me a moment to realize that what I was seeing was not the overhead shot of a cooking show. TJ is proud of his knee.

I share that to explain how I felt when, in the fifth grade, Greg Kreitzer pulled a folded photo out of his pocket and showed it to me. It had been pressed into a curve by his humid wallet. The magazine ink was beginning to smear from being sat on. He opened it delicately, its fold lines worn white.

Such a cherished document — a treasure map? It took me a few seconds to orient, to make sense of the bright spotlight glare on the greasy body hair and sweat.

Greg grinned, as if he carried the golden ticket to eternal friendship. Greg was creepy anyway, even creepier now.

I responded with an uncommittal "Dude…," before walking away. This was exactly the kind of thing I always got caught doing when it wasn't my fault.

Porn and I were not well introduced, but I got the hang of it, so to speak. I stumbled across images here and there, and I'd tear out the ones that intrigued me. Eventually, I had a little private collection of clippings. I shared a room with my brother but I could never admire my photos around him, because I knew he'd rat me out just for the fun of watching me run for my life. When I wanted to view my collection, I'd fold them up carefully and creep into the bathroom, the only room in our house with a lock. With two parents and six kids, visits to the single bathroom had to be judicious.

I've since wondered how the person reacted who walked into the bathroom the day I accidentally left my photo collage behind. I didn't realize it until the next day. The obvious choice for my parents would have been to beat my older brother, because they never accepted that I was old enough to do the things I did. I was eighteen before my dad realized I had a driver's license. But my brother showed no signs of punishment. Nor did he reveal any hint that he found the photos himself: no smirk, no long trips to the bathroom. If my sisters had discovered them, there would have been screams. Perhaps God intervened and whisked them away, to everyone's relief.

I got older. I collected whole magazines. There was an abandoned school stadium near my house where my friend Harold and I stashed our contraband. Old magazines acquire a unique smell when they are stored in dank places. To this day I think antique stores smell like porn.

I don't remember how I got the magazines, and I don't remember where they went. Probably they were discovered and stolen by younger boys, who like me acquired a very insufficient education.

Barbie and Ken were surprisingly plain under their disco duds, given their exaggerated proportions everywhere else. Smooth, featureless skin, and nothing to their nethers but the joint of their legs. I know that some families paraded around naked all the time, but my family was a buttoned-up bunch, so I had to learn anatomy the hard way.

My first hands-on experience provided little revelation. I was with a boxy Mexican girl I had just met, who wanted my class ring. Was my hand under her bra, or wasn't it? She felt like Barbie. Something wasn't right. It took me a while to realize she had Band-Aids over her nipples. A hundred reasons raced through my head before she explained that her mother made her do that, and it was another decade before I understood why.

Two years later, to everyone's surprise, the small town theater booked an X-rated film. A high-school buddy swore he could get us in with fake IDs. As we gathered up the suavity to saunter into the lobby like we were regulars, I noticed my ID was for a 45-year-old Hispanic man who was a foot shorter and forty pounds heavier than I.

I looked up from that painful ID to discover that the ticket-taker was my next door neighbor. He eyed me me, looked at my ID and said, "You gotta be kidding." I was dead. "Welcome, Mr. Rodriquez," he rasped, rolling his eyes and waving me in. I was reincarnated.

The movie was about as sexy as The Three Stooges, but not as funny. The more I saw, the less I wanted to learn.

The first drive-in movie of each season was usually a racy one, and I knew if I rode my bike down a certain street, I could watch over the fence. I surmised that the plot centered around an enormously endowed woman who suffocated her suitors. It was hard to tell without the metal car-window speaker.

I don't know what became of leering little Greg Kreitzer and his folded up photos. Maybe he became a pornographer. Or a knee surgeon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brain Pain

I can't remember a time in my life when a muscle or bone didn't ache. I just healed up my right shoulder, and now my left one sprung.

I didn't do anything to it. It just started hurting. A lot. Maybe I brushed my teeth too hard, or slept funny.

I've always had aches, bruises and dings. Tall, bony and clumsy, I constantly bump my head, stumble down stairs, fall off my bicycle or tumble down a ditch on wayward skates. Those bonks and twists were earned honorably, a badge proving I was doing something. I'm far less tolerant of aches that just show up on their own, like uninvited guests.

My shins never had any meat on them. Only skin. It is a deformity. They're as bumpy and raw as a tree branch. You can read every woody detail of my shin bone like the rings of a tree, or like that clear plastic Invisible Man we played with in elementary school, the one with realistic organs on the inside and one missing on the outside, the one we had the most questions about. During a softball game I once took an errant pitch to the shin, and from the sound everyone thought I got a hit.

In the middle of the city park near my childhood home there was a cylindrical building that housed some mysterious industrial function. We couldn't figure what accounted for the droning hum that came from inside because, although we could climb the walls, we couldn't see clearly through the dirty windows. The outside had a rocky facade rough enough to get a toe-hold, a natural scaling wall up to the tempting flat roof with its castle-like edge.

My friend Eric scampered up the side of the building like a gerbil. "I did it, you do it!" he crowed, a phrase that has taunted countless children to their deaths. Scared of heights but more afraid of being an outcast, I slowly worked my way up, wiggling over the square roofline like a fat raccoon.

The view was heady. Squirrels were eye-level. I studied the clouds to see if they were closer.

Going down was a lot scarier than climbing up. Eric, his face scrunched in concentration, worked his way quickly. Eric was small, nimble and lithe, the kind of kid who could get away with teasing you because, wily and slippery, you could never get a good enough grip on him to pound him. I was as graceful as a can of Pick-Up Sticks. Barely able to breathe, I managed to work my way over the edge, fingernails digging into the rock, and down to the first ledge. It took a while. Mindful of the setting sun, I gave up and jumped the remaining twelve feet or so. I felt (or heard) a ringing in my feet as all the cartilage melted into jello. I held still, afraid to walk or lay down, that my feet might lose their shape.

"If you're not going to do it, get off." This was another magic phrase Eric uttered impatiently. I psyched myself up to prove I could do a back flip off the park swing at the height of its arc. The feat would be no harder than letting go of the chains, but I had to convince my hands. I wanted to rehearse it in my mind a few more times, but at the sound of Eric's nagging I kicked my head back into the the roll. My hands did not let go, not until the swing began returning to Earth with me no longer sitting in it. I rotated too far before finally releasing the chains, landing on my back with a dull huff! The next day Eric and I returned to the spot to admire the impossibly angled imprint of my  arm and palm in the dirt, my broken wrist now in a thick, heavy cast. I hit him with it, and his head resonated like a ripe melon.

My nose looks like my dad's, long and curvaceous with a preference for the left side of my face. His was broken in the Navy, by the first punch of his first boxing match. But one does not inherit a broken nose.

"Dad," I asked, "did I ever break my nose?"

"No, I don't recall anything," he replied after a thoughtful, eye-wandering silence.

"Then how did my nose get so crooked?"

He thought some more. More eye-searching. "Well, there was that one time when you were three, and you walked in front of a kid with steel-toed boots who was swinging on the swing," he recalled. "When he hit you, you did a back flip and landed standing up."

Yeah, Dad, that might have done it.

Or maybe it was Plunger. Plunger was among the pile-on games we played in the park after school. I once heard Bill Cosby refer to it as "Buck-Buck." Kids on one team would form a human wall-chain by lining up, then bending over and wrapping arms firmly around the waist of the kid in front of them, who did the same. It looked like a mule train or a woven rope. The front-most kid would secure himself by wrapping his arms around a tree. Then the other team would run up one at a time and jump on the fortified mass, using their compounding weight and relentless impacts to knock the wall team over. To protect the tree-grabbing kid's collar bone we'd insert the littlest kid as padding in between. He was the Plunger.

I only recall playing the game twice. The last time, while I was in the middle of the wall team, we held up a record number of our opponents before the entire matrix of kids collapsed on top of my nose.

Nose blood is vivid red, rich with oxygen. The other kids ran home. I retired from Plunger.

As I get older my injuries continue even though I play less. I scratched a cornea when I picked up a basketball and didn't notice the juniper branch in front of me. I turned my head to look as I backed up the car, and sprained my neck.  I pulled a muscle in my shoulder by sleeping funny.

It's as if my body is accustomed to feeling injured, and repeats it out of habit. As if it says to itself, "Say, it's about time for a pulled tendon, isn't it?"

"No, tendons are Monday. Today's Thursday. Cramps day."

"Foot cramp?"

"Sure."

Oww! What did I do?