The old man didn’t want any part of it. He was a meat-and-potatoes guy. Discussing sex—discussing anything—was out of the question.
“Go on, Ruth, he’s only 13!” the old man shouted, scrunching his nose and shooing off my mother with his hand as if clearing the air after a fart.
He buried his nose in the business pages of the Miami Herald, following his three stocks. Up one-eighth one day, down a quarter the next. It was fractions to me.
“Steve’s a jerk, anyway,” chimed in Penny. “Why does he have to know the facts of life? Who’d want to go out with him?”
My mother eventually bludgeoned the old man into telling me. It was something he did not take to lightly. If he was uncomfortable talking about hygiene—like shaking yourself off after taking a whiz—he wasn’t going to have an easy time explaining how to stick a hard one into a woman’s jewel box. The reasons for my father’s reticence eluded me. After all, this was the same guy who had stashed a jumbo box of unlubricated Trojans in his dresser drawer.
One afternoon near the end of my halcyon days in Miami Beach, the rain was coming down in sheets. Thunder ripped like a cattle whip. Lightning illuminated the beach as though an atomic bomb had exploded. The sudden inclement weather wiped out any possibility that Arnie and I had for bodysurfing or feeling up Audrey and Joan.
Arnie went to visit his aunt in North Miami Beach. She was knitting him a sweater and she needed to trace his shoulders. Penny and my mother went shopping along Lincoln Road. Audrey and Joan said they were spending the day with their grandmothers on Treasure Island.
After the old man finished his Spanish omelet, I knew I was in for it when he put his hand on my shoulder. The old man rarely touched me.
“Steve, whaddaya say we shoot the breeze?”
The old man was silent in the elevator going up to the room—except for a couple of burps, the combustible byproducts of 17 straight days of Spanish omelets. He took out two Tums and shuffled uncomfortably from zori to zori.
In the room, the old man laid out the agenda. “Steve, your mother wants me to give you some pointers about girls.”
Penny was busy shopping for bras. Arnie was getting a cable-knit sweater sized for him. The girls were slurping chicken soup, maybe scouting plastic surgeons for designer nose jobs. I was learning about sex.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Dad. I got a pretty good idea about all that stuff. Guys I know talk about positions and French kissing all the time.” About the only thing I really knew was Bruce Fishman’s admonition: “You can’t do anything with a girl until her nipples are as hard as bullets.”
But the old man was not to be sidetracked even by a recitation of the Kama Sutra. He had a job to do. He droned on and on about the penis and the vagina, about prophylactics (so that was what Trojans were called), about unwanted babies coming into the world.
“Yeah, yeah, Dad. I know all this stuff.”
No matter. Before my eyes, the old man had transformed himself into Alfred C. Kinsey.
“You need a prophylactic, Steve? You need protection? You come to me.”
Imagine, the old man—the grumpy guy who lived for his three crummy stocks, the man who hawked rubber-soled bluchers to cops and Miss America pumps to schoolteachers—offering me rubbers!
Once he started he couldn’t be stopped.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys like you who get a girl in trouble, and then they have to marry her,” the old man said, hanging his head like a long-eared, sad-eyed hush puppy. “All coulda been avoided. I dunno why they don’t use protection, a prophylactic. They’re too cheap, too afraid to go to the druggist, caught up in the moment? Beats me.”
I was numb. The old man could have dragged me over hot coals and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. Using a multisyllabic word like prophylactic was completely weird and uncharacteristic. It was like LBJ talking in Boston lockjaw. This was a historic occasion, the closest I was ever going to get to Yalta or Potsdam. The old man and I talking about cocks, cunts, babes, and babies.
What I couldn’t get through my mind was sex and my parents. Did they actually do it?
“And one last thing, Steve,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger at my nose. “There’s nothing wrong with sex-u-al intercourse. If you love the girl. It can be a beau-ti-ful thing between a man and a woman—when it’s the right thing to do. At the right time and at the right place, when you’re older.”
When the old man had finished, we descended in the elevator silent, each of us ragged and spent. We both could have used a cigarette.
For better or worse, probably better, Audrey left four days later, before I could try out any of my father’s advice.
But the night before she and her family flew back to Jersey, Audrey for the first time allowed me to cup in my right hand her tiny breast. For as long as I wanted. Hours, it seemed. She didn’t talk about her sister, clothes, the classes she was planning on taking next year. We necked for two hours on the Roney veranda. Lillian Ross walked by and smiled, content in knowing that another summer had come and gone, and boys like me were still crazy about girls like Audrey.
Heated by my father’s sex talk, I tried to slip my fingers into the nether regions under her shift with spaghetti straps, but that was off limits. In her mind, I think Audrey felt she had already gone all the way. From an encounter on the beach to a prolonged sweaty clench, it was heady enough stuff for Audrey, even though she was from Jersey.
The farthest south I got that night was to brush my hand against Audrey’s pint-size derrière. And you know what? There were no soft, subtle furrows of flesh as I had dreamed. Instead, I got something that felt like a ham wrapped in plastic. Alas, little Audrey was wearing a girdle.
Hell, I wasn’t angry. I was ecstatic. Arnie had promised me the moon, my father had suggested stars. In two weeks, my complexion had turned peaches and cream.
As for Arnie, he left the Roney a day after Joan and Audrey. In the lobby, Arnie’s father was hunched over the counter at the checkout window, sweating the bill. Arnie glided an Ace comb through his hair as he took one last glance at the glittering ocean.
Then Arnie took out his index finger from the pocket of his khaki shorts, ran it under his nose and inhaled deeply. He smiled like a demon.
“Joan, what a sweet maiden,” Arnie said in a soft voice.
Image via CardCow