Most of what I learned about being a man back then came from watching my father, and my sense of inadequacy came from a belief that I could never live up to the man I saw in him. But that wasn’t the only source. Very few boys really see or understand their fathers beyond their own image of them. For all the public service announcements about how parents should talk to their kids about sex, alcohol, and drugs, we learn most about what we know or think we know about the adult world, not from our parents or television, but from each other: from our friends, to whom we can confide desires and longings, from whom respect and admiration are more easily won.
Peer pressure is more powerful than parental expectation because our friends are usually not asking us to do things that are difficult. At parties, in locker rooms, on buses on the way home – places where adults enter only briefly – kids propel each other, encourage each other to go down that alley, get in that car, turn off those lights and do things we are curious about. Actions that lie beyond the line of what is allowable – sex, drinking, breaking curfew, cheating – take little courage and even less encouragement, just the suggestion that we might not be caught and might not be alone in those desires.
When others participate – when a group becomes a mob – individual ideas, words and thoughts, consciousness and conscience, fall away. Everybody’s doing it. No one is responsible. To a young man or woman, crossing that line feels like freedom feels illicit and taboo. Tell any child about the one thing they can’t do, on pain of eternal damnation, excommunication and family shame, and it will become all the kid can think about.
I’ve been an athlete all my life. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I watch the games on television. I love the drama of team sports, the strategy, tension, beauty, and grace. Yes, there is violence, a barely contained surge. It’s mesmerizing, entertaining, sometimes even artful. There are rules and chaos, power and finesse. I played the game from six years old to twenty-one. I could say I hated it, and I did much of the time. I could say I played because I felt I had to, or was afraid how my quitting would upset my family or my friends. And I can tell you about the nausea, fear, and sometimes rage that drove me off the line, crashing into bodies, through bodies. But I know my reasons for playing were more complex. There were times when I enjoyed it. I still remember the sheer thrill of contact, the pleasure of knocking a stranger on his back, then holding him there for a second, making him look me in the eyes before I let him up. I find myself gleefully recalling the times I hit another player with a forearm “shiv” across the face mask or came in through the line clean to square up on a running back. There is joy in feeling your momentum carry you through another person, hitting him so cleanly in the chest that you barely feel it. Sometimes when I hit someone hard enough he’d whimper as he dropped.
The ugly truth is, sometimes it felt good to hurt someone, to beat someone that fundamentally. And the fact that most of the time I didn’t know my opponent made the violence impersonal. The fact that it was part of the game and within the rules, morally unobjectionable. I liked being good at an unquestionably tough game. I liked working out and seeing the muscles grow on my shoulders and chest. I liked how my T-shirts stretched around my arms. I grew guns. I was ripped, stacked.
I was a monster.
For a kid who was mercilessly picked on in junior high by boys and girls for being fat and shy, for a child so completely in the shadow of his father, the respect I felt from peers for being captain of the football team – the sudden interest of girls, the pats on the shoulder at the barber shop – were confusing but also thrilling. It didn’t matter that the girls I liked – dancers, writers, “theater chicks” – weren’t impressed by any of it. It hardly mattered that I couldn’t wait for the season to end and spent most minutes on the field checking the clock, wishing seconds could tick by faster. It didn’t matter that I felt like a fraud. At least I belonged.
I was looked up to.
Until I entered the locker room, that is. Because I couldn’t pull it off completely. Couldn’t speak the words or play the role. For every rousing half-time Knute Rockney-esqe speech I heard, for every prayer for strength made in a circle on one knee, there are, in those dank spaces slick with condensation, those bright metal surfaces, tile, concrete floors, and steam smelling of sweat, a thousand words no mother wants to hear directed at her child, or worse, come out of his mouth. It was in the locker room where I’d hear what every girl in school would and would not do and with whom and how many times, where I’d listen to my fellow captains scream at each other in the middle of a loss: “Are we just going to bend over and take it like fags, like women?” Where overweight kids and freshman were called bitches as in, “You’re my bitch today, fat boy.”
If hidden video cameras were put in football locker rooms across America and the footage played back for every mother to watch, football would no longer exist. As I say that, I also know that moment is not so very far off. Every child with a cell phone has a chance to blow the cover off, open the door. It will happen.
I wish I could say that, having been bullied, I stepped in to stop the bullies. But it was years before I developed the courage to act, to do the right thing without worrying about how those actions implicated me. That kind of courage, the kind Eric had, the kind that seemed not only to be about loyalty but about integrity, was beyond me because, like most young men, I didn’t have an identity. I understood myself in terms of who I wasn’t and who I wanted to be with no real sense of who I was. I’d look in the mirror and see bad hair, bad skin, a nose that was too pointy and ears that were too small.
Looking at photos from those days, I’m surprised that even under all that hair goop I was a good-looking kid, even handsome. By fourteen I’d lost the weight and my complexion was just a little mottled, no more than your average teenager. As my face thinned out, my mother’s high cheekbones and my father’s square chin emerged. And with my letterman jacket on I could have passed for Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club. But no matter how much I worked out, how many trophies I accumulated, I was still the fat kid who wanted, more than anything else, to fit in and measure up. It was bad enough that when everyone else was screaming along to the Beastie Boys or snaking to Def Leppard, I was humming along to Elvis and the Beatles. I actually enjoyed the books I read in English classes and was writing a poem to impress Danica Connors, the dancer and lead in the school musical, with her short, punk haircut, razor smile and lean, strong arms. I didn’t want any trouble. I was satisfied I wasn’t the target any longer and, for once, had a chance of almost being cool, of having a girlfriend, maybe “getting laid.”
Like most boys around sixteen, I wore my virginity like the embarrassing and uncomfortable clothes our mothers picked out at the bargain racks in Filene’s Basement. I was desperate to get it off me as soon as possible. The way the other guys talked about girls so openly and easily, frightened and fascinated me. I tried to tune it out, while at the same time listening intently, hoping to pick up some of what I thought they knew. When they’d look my way, I’d blush, throw on my football pants, grab my shoulder pads, walk toward the practice field. I handled my discomfort by avoiding it – moving through spaces quickly, keeping mostly to myself. But silence gets read, too. It wasn’t long before a rumor got around that I was gay.
“Well, people talk. I mean, it’s kind of strange,” my friends would say. “You don’t talk to girls, or talk about them. You hang out with those theater kids and everyone knows your buddy, K., is a fag.”
“Look, I like girls. They just don’t like me,” I’d say, and try to laugh it off. Even my sisters worried a little, awkwardly asking me if I thought this or that girl on the gymnastics team was cute. So I loaded up on bad advice: “Girls don’t want you to be nice to them,” I was told by friends who knew less than I did. “They don’t want poetry and flowers. They like it when you’re an asshole. Be an asshole.” So in the hallway between classes when a pretty girl walked by in a short skirt, I blurted “Nice legs, Natalie.” Then later in the cafeteria, “Amy, you could bounce a quarter off that sweater.” My head felt light, blood pounded, and I tried to smile and laugh like the popular guys. The girls would blush or stare, confused, or shake their heads and walk away. By the end of a week, my buddy Freddy Kaplan pulled me aside: “Jo Jo, what the hell is wrong with you? You’re acting like a creep.” So I dropped the act, embarrassed, ashamed, and even more confused.
When I finally had sex, I didn’t tell anyone – possibly out of embarrassment or disbelief at how upsetting, anticlimactic, and utterly clichéd it was. My first experience amounted to an awkward and somewhat frantic five minutes in my father’s steamed-up Chevy Cavalier by the softball diamonds at the Sacred Heart playground parking lot. I even kicked the car horn as I struggled out of my jeans and my girlfriend helped me with the condom. She was a good girl, waifish with long hair that flew about her shoulders in the lightest breeze. She went to my church and wore a tiny cross on a silver chain that seemed to float across the pale skin just below her neck. We’d been together for almost three months when I told her I loved her and maybe I convinced both of us I did.
“So have you done it yet?” other boys would ask.
“ ‘Hah?’ That means no. What’s amaatta Jo Jo, scared? Can’t get it up?”
That wasn’t the problem at all. The fact was we were both excited all the time, and scared but in the way of thrills and shocks, making any excuse to sneak off into basements and empty rooms, trying to figure out whose parents would be out and how late they would return.
We were conspirators and it was fun at first, like an adventure. There was laughter too. “It’s like magic,” she’d giggle as she reached for me and felt me grow beneath her palm. I thought she was magic too: her body a mystery, charged, sweet and unsolvable. I was restless and relentless and sometimes she’d laugh, saying how just once she’d love to watch a movie with her bra still clasped. She’d paw the air like a puppy scrambling over the top of a dune and pant, “I hardly have anything there to grab.”
I’d joke, “Well, it isn’t like you ever try to stop me.”
It was true; she’d wait breathlessly and moan a little at my touch, fingers in my hair, pressing on my arms. “There’s no stopping Joel B. Peckham, Junior.” She’d poke me in the bicep or chest and smile, dancing off.
I didn’t know, still don’t know if she liked the thought that I might be unstoppable. I wasn’t really. I was not the type of boy to push through a door that wasn’t open, run through a stop sign. And yet, I know how sometimes it can be almost a relief to simply let things happen, let the tide wash over you, let nature take its course. It’s so confusing, desire and fear and expectation. When you want what you don’t want. When your body responds in ways beyond your conscious control. When you come to the edge and back off in relief only to wonder and want to go back, longing to fall.
She put herself in my hands and let them travel where they wanted. So I was the one to try to take things just a little further than before, stopping when she asked or lightly pushed my hands away, but waiting for another time, another night, another chance to take a chance as if it were a game I could win by simply playing long enough, wearing her down over time – until there was no further we could go and I found myself inside a girl in a car in an empty parking lot.
When it was over, we buttoned up our jeans and I started to apologize for being clumsy and too quick – that I’d get better. I just needed practice. I heard her start to gulp for air, like she was having trouble breathing. Then she started to cry.
I never asked her why she was crying. I didn’t ask her if it hurt, or if she wanted this, or if the girls at school had made her think she should. I think that was the first time I looked at a girl who wasn’t one of my sisters and felt something other than fear or desire, the first time I thought maybe she was just as subject to the pressures and doubts and needs as I was. It scared me. All I could say over and over was “I’m sorry. We don’t ever have to do that again.” And I meant it.
“No. It’s not your fault,” she said. “We did this together.”
In that moment though, it didn’t feel that way. And though we dated six more months, we never did have sex again. I never even tried to go there. But you can’t take it back. We messed around, but it had become serious and frightening, things became mechanical, hesitant and somehow dark. The laughter stopped.
I didn’t tell anyone about those five minutes in the car. When asked by other boys if I was still a virgin I was quiet because everyone knew I’d had just one girlfriend and I didn’t want to hurt her. And I didn’t want to lose her. I don’t think I would have told those boys about it even if things had gone differently.
I was brought up by a gentleman to be a gentleman – as confusing as that seemed at times. While I was steadily being asked to be more aggressive, more male, more violent on the field, violence of any kind in any other arena was not tolerated by either of my parents. And there was no place for cruelty or disrespect towards women. My father had no patience or regard for men who’d brag about a conquest or even those who talked of women as if they were an adversary to be conquered. They were less than men to him. But at school, my experience with masculinity was one that swung between the poles of homophobia and misogyny. And though I was constantly thinking about, dreaming about, and masturbating to girls, I was terrified of them and terrified of my fear of them – that my inability to look a girl in the eye or bear her returning glance was some hidden sign that I might be a “homo.” My awkwardness around girls was bewildering to my friends and especially to my older sisters, who did everything they could to help, including one evening after I’d been dumped again, when they grabbed me by the arms, stood me in front of Lisa’s full-length mirror, and said, “Look at yourself. You’re beautiful.”
But the problem was, I couldn’t see it. Even if I could, beautiful was not what I was going for. At a certain point, identity is not about the way others see you. It becomes how you see yourself through their eyes. You internalize the messages, the images, and the voices until it doesn’t matter what “they” think or say. And there is no “you” to see or do the seeing. They have worked their way inside of you, become you.
Originally published on Heart of a Man
Read part 1 here
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