Mary, the summer before the big talk.
he day my mother taught me about sex, she sat me on the end of her bed and explained that within the next couple of years, I’d hit this thing called puberty. I was a very undeveloped ten-year-old, and earlier that day had asked why, since the six of us kids had all been potty trained for years, my mother still had diapers sitting on top of her dresser. Now, I could not take my eyes off those diapers, which I was learning were not diapers at all but my own mother’s panty liners, and they loomed in front of me, a dark foreshadowing of my own impending puberty.
I should have known, when she called my name from the top of the stairs and asked me to join her in her bedroom, that the news wouldn’t be good. In past years, being summoned thus had meant that Santa wasn’t real, or our pet rabbit Cadbury had died of heat stroke, or she’d found out that I’d stolen my younger sister’s money to buy a Trapper Keeper from the school store. But nothing could prepare me for this latest revelation.
“You will start to see some changes,” she said. She pulled out a yellowing booklet titled What’s Happening to My Body? A Girl’s Guide to Puberty (a book, I was starting to realize, that must have once belonged to one or both of my older sisters) and took me through a smiling cartoon girl’s journey to womanhood.
It all seemed terrible: the sprouting hairs, the budding breasts, the blood that one day would just start gushing out of a hole I didn’t even know was there. And then there were the things you couldn’t see: eggs dropping, menstruals cramping, hormones pulsing through my body like an incurable illness. My life as I had known it for the past ten years was over. Once the process started there was no turning back. And all for what?
“So you can experience the gift of children,” my mother said. To this point, she had been all it’s-just-as-natural-as-waking-up-in-the-morning, and now she tried to make it sound pleasant, special, exciting even.
“It goes where?” I asked in horrified disbelief when she got to the part about penises. “But how does it get in there through your pants?” You would think I’d have seen at least one sex scene in a PG-13 movie, or at the very least, heard rumors about sex from my peers. But my parents had a gift for making me believe that if it wasn’t Disney, it wasn’t worth my time, which meant sex as a concept was completely off my radar and playground whisperings about it fell on deaf ears. So, I couldn’t imagine how, in Jesus’ name, two perfectly grown adults (my parents among them) would find themselves naked at the same exact time, and long enough for him to put a baby inside of her.
I knew my parents slept in the same bed, this bed, in fact. But by my calculation, even when they were changing from day clothes to bed clothes, there was about a ten second window between taking a dirty pair of underwear off and putting on a fresh pair to get the whole thing over with. The way my mother described the process, ten seconds would barely get him in. It must happen, I reasoned, on mornings when the man can’t find his jeans, and the woman realizes her skirt is wrinkled and has to pause mid-change to iron it. This would give them at least two minutes without pants. I’ll always have my clothes pressed in advance, I promised myself. To my mother I said, “I don’t think I want kids.”
“You will,” she replied. “That’s what happens when you get married.”
Once the mystery of life was out there for me to dread, my mother sought out further teaching moments, usually centered on the idea that having a baby was a miracle, a God-given gift. To prove her point, she led me out to the doghouse one hot summer day where my cat, Waffles, was giving birth.
Waffles had come to me in a laundry basket as a gift from my parents for my eleventh birthday. She was all fluff and gray eyes and tiny little raspy meows. We’d had cats before, but not one of them had belonged to me, and all of them had died in various tragic ways: an owl, a shovel, a speeding car. Waffles was mine and I, like my own parents had done, would shelter and protect her from the evils of the world.
I spent my birthday weekend with Waffles, teasing her with balls of yarn, carrying her around in the pocket of my overalls dressed in doll clothes, and subsequently coaxing her out from under my bed. Then Monday rolled around and the birthday fun was over. Time for Waffles to move outside with the dog. “What if it gets cold?” I protested.
“That’s why pets have fur,” my parents explained.
It did not take long for Waffles to become street-wise and pregnant. The first summer, she gave birth to three kittens, then four more the following spring. This was her third litter, and my mother thought this would be a fun mother-daughter-cat bonding moment. We knelt in the grass, braced our hands against the frame of the doorway, and pushed our heads into the doghouse to get a good look. “Isn’t it beautiful?” my mother asked as the cat tensed, emitting a strange, guttural moan. Her legs parted and a slimy, matted, rat-like baby forced its way out and fell into the widening pool of stickiness beneath her.
We watched five more born this way, my mother marveling at the wonder of nature, me trying not to vomit into the cat’s placenta. The last kitten that had come out was stillborn, and the cat pulled it gently from the group of newborns nuzzling into her belly, and licked it clean. “Incredible,” my mother whispered, just before Waffles widened her jaw and sank her teeth into its neck.
I didn’t feel the same love for Waffles after that. Not because she had devoured one of her own kittens, as cats will do, but more because she was the very vivid answer to my speculations about what birth was like, the final nail in the coffin of my innocence. In truth, we’d been growing apart for a while. Her life outside had turned her somewhat feral, and we saw her only when she stopped by to drop off another litter of kittens (some litters striped, others, calico) before disappearing again.
Now, when my classmates talked about sex, I tuned in. “Do you know what Ian said on the bus?” Courtney asked me at an overnight birthday party. “He said you have to have sex twice for every kid you have, and that your parents have had sex at least twelve times.” Ian had a knack for turning anything into a sexual innuendo I didn’t understand. Bragging about being the ball girl at your older brother’s soccer game, or asking a classmate to borrow his pencil, or saying your favorite character from Toy Story was Woody—it was all fair game, and I had to watch what I said around him. I hated him for always targeting me, and now, for targeting my parents.
“That’s not true,” I replied to the group of giggling girls. “My mom said you’re only supposed to have sex when you know it’s going to make a baby. So, they’ve only done it six times.” It seemed better, somehow, to think that my parents had conception down to a science, that their little bedroom game of looking for jeans and ironing skirts had happened only once in my lifetime before my younger sister was born. Still, I feared Ian might be right, and started to wonder about Waffles. If humans had to have sex twice for each kid, what about cats? By this time, she’d given birth to a total of eighteen kittens and was likely to have another litter before my fourteenth birthday. I began to suspect that Waffles had another life beyond our front yard—an indecent one.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, a girl in my older brother’s high school class got pregnant. Until now, I had assumed it was impossible to get pregnant unless you had a husband or were the Blessed Virgin Mary, an axiom both my parents gladly reinforced. It coincided nicely with my theory about how sex worked: if they weren’t married, why would a man and woman possibly be getting dressed in the exact same bedroom at the exact same time? It had seemed I was safe from sex until I was married.
But when I heard about the pregnant girl, I burst into my mother’s bedroom, where she was getting dressed, and threw myself down on the bed in despair. I had not seen this latest pubertal hazard coming. There was something she wasn’t telling me about how it all worked.
“I’m going to get pregnant when I’m seventeen!” I wailed.
“No you won’t,” she replied calmly, the same way she had when I said I was probably going to contract pinworms after I heard about an outbreak in a family of cousins I hadn’t seen in months.
“But how do you know?” I cried. “If it can happen to Shannon, it can happen to anybody!”
“Because,” she said, attaching fake pearls to her earlobes. “We’re not those types of people.” I assumed she meant people who watched R-rated movies and skipped church on Sundays.
Despite her confidence in me, I felt the best way to protect myself from an early pregnancy was to avoid puberty altogether, and I spent the next two years doing what I could to fight it. I traded in my dresses for tee shirts and wind pants, played soccer with the boys at recess instead of standing off to the side giggling at them, and I ignored the existence of deodorant until my mother came home with a stick one day, all pink and flowery and smelling like powder, and told me I could just put it on my dresser until I was ready to use it. When I started to get some tenderness in my chest, I worked up the courage to ask my mother for a bra. “But I only want sports bras!” I shouted. It was, after all, her fault I even needed one.
As I approached high school, I felt the dark pubescent forces making their advance. I noticed some small changes, but nothing that couldn’t be concealed behind loose-fitting athletic wear. And sure, I thought some of the boys in my class were funny, but I didn’t like them like that. Just to prove it, I avoided all middle school dances, because dances were for people who wanted to flirt. Those were the types of people, I bet, that got pregnant at seventeen.
I got through junior high with little more than a pair of small, flattened breasts and shaved armpits. But the worst, I knew, was yet to come. I woke up every morning in a panic, rushing into the bathroom to check for blood, relieved each time I saw I had yet another day to live without a panty liner.
Of course, puberty did come, sometime between eighth grade and high school, and I sat my mother on the end of her bed and told her I would need to borrow some of those diaper things, and I guessed I should get one of those bras with the hooks in the back. She was less devastated than I thought she would be. She didn’t put on black and mourn the loss of yet another child to adolescence. Instead, she stood up and said matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s what happens when you turn fourteen,” and handed me the pack on her dresser. I shoved it under my sweatshirt, pressing hard to hide the bulge.
“Don’t tell Dad!” I yelled before slamming the door on my way out.
Dad, I knew, would mourn the loss of his little girl. Maybe he found out, or maybe he’d just assumed it had happened, but suddenly, the bedside chats with my mother turned into passenger seat chats with my father when he picked me up at 11:58pm from Molly Stanton’s adult-supervised, co-ed, alcohol-free, cross-country team sleepovers. I wondered what he thought went on after midnight.
“It’s just not appropriate,” he tried to reason with me when I whined that everybody else’s parents let them stay overnight. “We’re not everybody else’s parents!” He was right about that. Nobody else’s father was the coach of the cross country team. Nobody else’s father knew better than everybody else’s father that the nerdy boys on the team were the least of the threats to my girlhood. I glared at his reflection in the passenger side window so that he’d know just how cruel he was. When I felt I’d made my point, I whipped my head around and said, “You’re so unfair!” then turned again to watch the guardrail whiz by.
“That’s what happens when you have a daughter,” he replied.
Despite hating him for making me the only kid who had to leave the co-ed sleepovers early, I worried he might be right about other boys. They were all out to get me pregnant, or at least to second base—whatever that was—and it was best not to date at all.
I completed Freshman year without so much as a group date to the movies. My father seemed content with my apparent aversion to boys, so had no reservations about me taking my first job at an all-boys summer camp. I would work in the dining hall as a sort of sous-chef: emptying vats of peanut butter into smaller vats of peanut butter and vats of mayonnaise into smaller vats of mayonnaise, and serving English muffin pizzas and Jell-O to boys half my age. The camp was across the lake from our summerhouse, a rustic getaway just a few miles from our real house, so my father could easily patrol the waters until I boated home.
But what he didn’t know, and neither did I, was that a boy named Tim Fox would be there. Tim was the bronzed sailing instructor from New Jersey, and I caught him looking at me from his dinner table while I served sloppy joes one evening. Another night he lingered a few seconds after I unloaded a scoop of macaroni and cheese onto his plate to ask me how my day was. The morning he came into the kitchen where I was emptying a vat of blueberry yogurt into a smaller vat of blueberry yogurt was the morning I decided he’d be my first kiss, my prom date, and probably, my husband.
He inhaled deeply as he walked in, paused at my workstation, and whispered breathily, “That smells good.”
“The yogurt?” I asked.
“No, you,” he replied, even breathier than before.
I began spending the hour before my shift in our bathroom applying mascara and sparkly eye shadow, doing and redoing the bun on the top of my head until I had achieved the right balance of tight and messy, then walking out in a spaghetti strap tank top and swirl of “Simply White” GAP body spray. Between shifts, I stretched out my two-piece like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model as the sailing class floated by, peeking out from behind an outdated copy of Cosmo I’d borrowed from a friend to see if Tim had noticed me. One day, during a lunch shift following a morning on the dock, he asked me from across a tray of chicken patties, “Did you enjoy the sun?”
I handed him a sesame-spotted bun and replied softly, “I did. How was sailing today?”
“Beautiful,” he said, pausing just long enough to let me know he wasn’t talking about the lake. “I’d like to take you some time.”
Unfortunately, my father had noticed too: the hair, the makeup, the hours spent sunning on the dock. “I’m not letting you go sailing with some guy I don’t even know,” he said. The discussion ended there, but the romance did not.
It was a drawn-out affair—four summers—that ended each August when Tim went back to New Jersey and I went into my bedroom to cry, and began awkwardly again the following June when he strolled into the camp kitchen, already tanned. Those first two summers we stole glances in the dining hall and passed whispered words of disguised flirtation across the serving counter. I was sure that if I was ever going to kiss anyone, it was going to be Tim. I’d earned a reputation at school as an un-dateable non-partier, but at camp, where no one knew me, I played up the mystery of my off-season life. I didn’t lie about the fact I’d never had a beer or a boyfriend, but when other counselors asked me (on Tim’s behalf) to party with them in the evenings, I said I had other plans. “Too cool for us,” they teased. I smiled and shrugged, and let them believe that I was.
In truth, I was still too scared, and too mystified about what happens or what’s expected when you kiss someone. The camp counselors, Tim among them, were not like the cross country kids I hung out with at school. They smoked cigarettes, drank beer after the campers went to bed, and had probably been around a couple of bases, the actual details of which I had never worked out. Besides, Tim and I were rarely alone. He was surrounded by campers during the day, and I was forbidden from hanging out with the camp guys in the evenings.
Twice, though, I had my chance at that first kiss. The first time came late one night under the deck in the rain, three summers into our suppressed romance. After the kids were in bed and my parents asleep, Tim canoed across the lake to my house. We sat together exchanging hesitant touches and few words (we preferred basking in our true love to speaking.) When it started to downpour, we tiptoed under the house where my parents lay sleeping upstairs. Rain dripped between the cracks of the deck above us, and we huddled together, Tim occasionally commenting on how nice I smelled while I held my breath so I wouldn’t choke on the scent of a thousand stale cigarettes. When the rain slowed, the quiet highlighting the silence between us, he leaned in, and I panicked.
“How’s that crack you patched in the sailboat holding up?” I improvised. Something told me that kissing under a deck in the rain while your father slept upstairs—that’s what got you pregnant at seventeen, and at seventeen, I couldn’t risk it.
The second chance came the following summer. My parents agreed to let my cousin Hannah and me spend the night on the lake alone while they stayed at home. Hannah was my age, a good girl like me, and together we decided to break that habit, just this once. We invited Tim and another counselor, Evan, to come by. They arrived by canoe again, this time with a backpack of beer. I sat on the deck railing as Tim leaned his rock-hard abs against my bent knees. He pulled a PBR from the backpack and offered it to me. I took it from him, casually, I hoped, and cracked it open. If they could see me now, I thought, “they” being my classmates and “now” being me drinking alcohol and hanging out with the hottest guy at camp. I took a long sip of beer and forced back a gag reflex.
“What do you normally drink?” Tim asked.
“This, mostly,” I said. It was true, of course. That one sip was the most I’d ever had in my life. When I was halfway through, he asked if I was ready for another. “Yeah!” I said, and set the half-empty can aside.
Meanwhile, Hannah had disappeared inside with Evan and the backpack. Tim sat beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, which were tightening with that feeling I was in too deep. His voice was soft again, his head bending to reach mine.
Suddenly, I was tired. More tired, in fact, than I thought I had ever been before. I yawned and stretched my arms up, loosening his grasp, and declared I should go to bed. He called to Evan who emerged from the house with a giggling Hannah. Tim grabbed my hand and promised to see me tomorrow, and the two boys canoed off into the night.
That was the last summer I saw Tim, a summer that ended with a mysterious girlfriend from New Jersey coming for a visit, a shattered heart, and my father finding out about the beer-drinking and the almost-kiss and summoning me to the end of the dock for a chat.
“I don’t even know who you are anymore!” he grieved. My tears splashed into the water below as I tried to explain everything to him, from the two half-drunk PBRs to the shoulder hug, but he held his hand up and said accusingly, “I don’t want to know what happened that night.” I begged him to tell me how he knew what he thought he knew, but he refused. I hid my diary between mattresses after that.
My mother was away at the time, and I met her at home two days later, prepared for a second blowup. Instead, she called me into her room where she sat up in bed reading her morning prayers, her back against the headboard, and gently patted the spot next to her, the spot where my father slept each night, and reached out to stroke my hair. “I know how it is,” she said sympathetically, and I burst into tears.
I didn’t really blame my father for his overreaction. Who knows what might have happened that night had I taken my first kiss? I certainly didn’t. Despite legally being an adult, I was still my father’s little girl, still more clueless about kissing and dating and sex than the rest of my peers. But I was no longer the little girl with the fluffy kitten who was afraid of puberty. I’d practically kissed a boy. As for Waffles, she had gone missing that first summer I worked at the boys’ camp, only to be found months later, alone and flattened in the middle of the road.
I didn’t cry when my mother broke the news to me from the foot of her bed. I suppose I’d been dealing with the loss for years. And while I knew Waffles wasn’t held to the same standards as I was, I couldn’t help but feel there was some larger moral lesson in her fate. “You see,” I sensed my mother saying, concealed by words of comfort “that’s what happens when you have sex before you’re married.”
— Mary Brindley
Mary Brindley grew up in Orwell, Vermont, spent her twenties in Boston, and recently moved to San Francisco where she works as a freelance copywriter. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in creative nonfiction, and is indebted to her large family for providing her with the fodder for most of her essays.