As he matured, John Reed realized that what he had thought innocent practice kissing with his babysitter was actually sexual abuse.
I admired her from afar, and despite her busy itinerary, the many needy souls in her life, I felt that she had singled me out, that our love was mutual. She was the first.
The next, I impressed with a sudden act of courage. She would never forget me.
Then, love again. She got lost coming to see me on my birthday, and walked three miles.
Then, the married woman, who would take me home.
Then, the old woman, so old she could barely stand, who asked my parents—divorced, impoverished artists—what they had done right, and sent me Alanna, who kept a brush in the back pocket of her Jordache jeans.
They would be: Mrs. Powers, Mrs. Strauchler, Mrs. Kochman, Mrs. Ponzinni, and Mrs. Paris, my kindergarten, first, second, third and fourth grade teachers. PS 41. New York City. In the absences of my urchin life, what I learned, I learned from them. From their shaking fingers, sometimes beckoning, sometimes pointing, as I fumbled toward self-education.
Life, and learning with it, goes better with love. In schooling, we lose our passions; we are discouraged from our instinct to find the subjects and the people we adore. When Pam Frazier, my young, beautiful, voluptuous math teacher, hung over me as I sat with her in detention—two buttons of her white silk blouse open—I learned more about my future than I learned in a hundred memorized textbooks.
When I asked Ms. Lauper, my art teacher, if I could skip free period because I’d rather be with my friends, her mouth dropped to swallow the insult—in fact, I liked her far more than my friends—and I caught my first glimpse of romantic regret, the phantom of adult life.
When I was twenty-three, and needed to do something about my post-graduate language requirement, Karine appeared, and taught me French. When I was seventeen, heading into my high school senior year, a twenty-seven-year-old teen counselor, Jill, directed me on college applications, and life beyond. When I was sixteen, a twenty-four-year-old investment banker, Jenny, delivered a badly needed reality check; there was a world above Fourteenth Street. Even more of a miracle, Jenny didn’t like kissing; we were soul mates.
One of the stories narrated in my last book, Tales of Woe (MTV Press), recounts a real-life soccer-mom/teen seduction. A 38-year old mother of two cavorted with a group of boys; her friend, 45, encouraged the goings on.
In writing about the “sleep-over,” I wondered if the boys had been wronged. No doubt they were molested in the media bacchanal that followed, as were the two women. During the trial, a fifteen-year old testified that he’d lost his virginity; his mother told reporters a beautiful memory had been stolen from him. I had trouble discerning a crime. I thought soccer moms were sexy when I was a teenager, and I still do—and the older women I dated when I was underage, the teen counselor and the investment banker, were fundamental to who I became.
As an adult, I’m shocked by how many people I know were molested as children. Over the years, the secrets come out, and I tick off a mental checklist. Of the women I’m friends with, I’d estimate that half had something happen that they view as not right. Of the men, also half, but they view their partners as mentors, not pedophiles.
Filling out a form at a medical office, I counted three things that happened to me when I was a kid, all very minor, that would be characterized as sexual abuse. Once, at my grandmother’s house—I’d stay with her for weeks in suburban Long Island—this creepy teenager named Peter told me a sexual disease was going around and he needed to “examine me.” We stood on the dark stairwell. I was four. Two: this mentally deficient guy grabbed my crotch in the subway. He waved a five-dollar bill. There were two cops on the other side of the turnstiles—there’s a precinct at Union Square—and I ducked under and told them what happened. They arrested the guy; we walked to the station. My father came for me, and a—I don’t know what to call her—case-worker came for the mentally deficient guy. She looked exactly like Lindsay Wagner, who had once winked at me at a gallery, and she convinced us not to press charges. She promised to keep the mentally deficient guy in the halfway house—he wouldn’t go out alone again.
The third incident fits neatly in the column headed “mentor.”
My father would trade childcare hours. Sometimes, he’d take me to the loft of a woman who had a beautiful daughter. Delancey Street, a busy shopping block. You had to walk through the store to get to the stairwell; the woman and her daughter lived two flights up. We played in the back, away from the windows on the street.
The beautiful girl had a best friend who was always there. The best friend had light brown hair, and was beautiful too, but I don’t remember her well. The beautiful girl had straight dark hair, a heart-shaped face, and dimples. Alternately, her eyes were huge, or tapered slits. Her smile was a quarter apple—perfectly red and white. Her teeth were so graceful and uniform I remember them in a single, blinding stroke of ivory. Perhaps I was imprinted by her image; her face is in almost every woman I’ve dated, and in the face of the woman I married. Or, perhaps she fulfilled an imprint that was already there; she looked like my aunt, like my great aunts, like great great aunts I’d seen in photographs.
The beautiful girl and her friend were a few years older than me. They sat me in a chair and combed my hair. Sometimes for the whole visit. They fussed around me, groomed my dirty curls and washed my face. I sat, immobile, silent.
Years later, she babysat me. She was almost a teen, and I was on the cusp of too old for a babysitter—a sophisticated nine. She went to public school, but was studious, upright, arriving with an armful of books. She didn’t wear a backpack, she carried her books in a pile, bound in a strap. We sat on the couch and talked. She and her friends were beginning to have parties—so-and-so liked so-and-so and she liked so-and-so and at such-and-such party so-and-so and so-and-so made out. She practiced kissing on me; I was cooperative. She got a short haircut, 80s, longer on one side. Her hair fell over one eye. The couch was square and soft, maroon velvet; my father had bought it at an estate sale. I would nap on it after school on weekdays. Sometimes her lips were chapped. For a year, my face was enveloped by the crooked line of her hair.
My father and the beautiful girl’s mother were playdate acquaintances. They didn’t stay in touch. But I kept track of the beautiful girl in the way that one child keeps track of another: “Oh, so you go to IS70. Do you know … “ The beautiful girl had a bumpy ride. Drugs and musicians. I ran into her post-heroin—at an opening at Roebling Hall in Williamsburg. She was dressed rocker chick, but looked so put-together it was difficult to imagine she’d ever had trouble. I’d recently heard that she had a pretty heavy professional job. Fashion/advertising. Her gray skirt, wool, stopped at the knee. Her leather jacked stopped at the waist. I introduced myself. I’d grown a head taller than her. She was nervous, and ran across the room to drag her fiancee into the conversation—as if I had expectations of her.
My wife was there—this was 2004, and I pointed her out to the beautiful girl. My wife was pregnant, but not showing, and we weren’t telling people yet.
The beautiful girl hung on her fiancee’s arm. I took my cue, and circulated.
Though I’d told people about the practice kissing sessions, I didn’t reminisce at Roebling Hall. A distant childhood episode, and frivolous—but I let it pass because the beautiful girl took it more seriously than I did.
As it happened, a close friend of mine was there, Josephine, who knew the story. Josephine, incidentally, also has straight brown hair and blue eyes and a stare of welcoming if skeptical intelligence—like the women in my family and so many of the women in my life. Once in a while someone would mistake her for my wife. I nudged her.
“Hey, that’s my babysitter.”
“Oh,” said Josephine, always implacable, “the reason.”
“The reason for what?”
“The reason you don’t like kissing.”
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