Delicate Conversations

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.

The following article contains references to sexual assault. 

It is the second grade. I am at a senior high football game at the ball field a few blocks from my house in a small Alabama town. I am not watching the game but playing with my brother and his friends, since I always play with them. I can go anywhere if I do; otherwise, I have to stay at home. We are throwing rocks at some of the girls in my brother John’s room at school. The girls are on the bleachers, we are underneath, looking up at their underpants. I have a crush on one of them — Rebecca, dark eyes and hair, smart and full-bosomed already, in the fourth grade. I like her a lot, so I am throwing rocks at her. Then she says, pointing at me, “Look at Mab, she’s on the wrong side.” I stop, terrified, and go and sit next to my parents in silence for the rest of the ball game. I am quiet during the cakewalk afterwards, and the walk home. I do not know which side won. That night in the bathtub I begin to cry. My mother says, “Honey, what’s the matter?” Watching the dirty water flecked with soapsuds, I tell her what Rebecca said. My mother is silent, and I say, sobbing, “I want to be a girl.” And my mother says, “You can be,” and I wish she had said, “You are.” 

My best Sunday School friend, Amy Watters, on a humid summer afternoon third grade, began my initiation into the terrifying knowledge of sex. Amy’s mother, usually at least half crazy, had broken the news to Amy that morning, and Amy had raced over immediately after lunch, figuring that this was something I did not know. She was right. 

“So you see,” she triumphantly announced (she was just going into first grade and delighted to know something I didn’t), “the man sticks his peter in the woman’s pee-pee and they have a baby.” 

I had been dodging cracks in the pavement (step on a crack and you have to get married). I stopped still. I was immediately offended that Amy had said “peter” and “pee-pee,” which I knew were dirty words, instead of “weewee” for both, like John and I did. Then it struck me what else Amy had said. “That isn’t true,” I replied with equal confidence. I knew that a man’s wee-wee couldn’t fit into a woman’s wee-wee, and felt sorry that Amy had such a crazy mother. 

“But it is, the man sticks his —” 

I stopped her from repeating it again. “My momma and daddy don’t do that,” I said, trying to convince myself that maybe this was just something that affected children whose mothers worked in the sewing factory. 

Amy was relentless. “Yes they do, too, my momma says everybody’s mommas and daddies do.” 

I had a sudden feeling it was true. My universe teetered near the heart of a vast darkness as I saw millions of daddies, including my own, wee-weeing in millions of mommas instead of in their toilets. I had watched my brother urinate many times, his hand guiding the soft stream of water into the porcelain bowl, although I had to climb onto the lowered seat and hold on tight to keep from falling in. And some times at night, especially in the winter, when I was comfortable in my bed, I would dream I was already on the toilet seat, dreaming carefully the entire stumble around the corner of the bed, through the opened door, around the clothes hamper to the chilly toilet — then I would wet the bed, waking up damp and ashamed but also relieved at having avoided the darkened bathroom and the frozen floor. How any of this related to babies I could not understand. I knew very well, like I knew to say “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, sir,” and “Please and thank you,” that wee-wee and do-do and toilets went together and that it was embarrassing and shameful and probably a sin to do it anywhere else, and this had something to do with why we had to wear pants over our seats even in summer heat and why mother had gotten so upset when Kevin White persuaded my little sister to pull down her underpants on the sidewalk, even when she didn’t mind. I was humiliated that my parents might do this when they had told me not to, and confused that they would hide it from me, suddenly terrified at living in a world where this happened at least as often as there were children, and even more afraid of what other ugly truths my parents might have concealed. Finally I was not a little upset at God for having arranged things in such a nasty fashion, and later in Sunday School when I heard about the Virgin birth, I saw that God had found the process distasteful also, and had devised for Himself, anyway, a method of getting around it. 

So I went around in a panic for all of June, not speaking to my parents except to be polite, and hardly talking to John, either, since I wanted to spare him this knowledge, until I convinced myself that what Amy had revealed must not be that important or true, or my mother would have told me about it. With great relief I forgot about sex for as long as I could. I reverted to my old belief that babies were born because God, and sometimes Jesus, sprinkled star dust out of heaven, like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, and when this dust floated down onto possible mothers, they had babies. I had heard my friends Lana Williams and Marcy Franklin talk in whispers about unwed mothers, and I figured that for them God had missed or been poorly informed about who was married and when — which I could understand since heaven was so far up in the sky that God couldn’t be expected to see or hear about everything, or to have perfect aim. 

The star dust theory kept me safe for another few years. The next step in my education came from the unlikely combination of my grandmother Mab and the novel Adam Bede. By that time, my grandmother was 70, and senility had begun to overcome Victorian reticence and hone her life-long frankness into a near-brutal naivete that could reveal to grandchildren in minutes what parents had taken years to conceal. Her vision was failing, and a friend had arranged for her to get what they called “talking books,” records from the Institute for the Blind that arrived periodically in black metal boxes. I liked to climb upstairs in the slow heavy hours after summer lunch to my grandmother’s room, its four windows open, mimosa branches tapping panes and mahogany furniture weighting the afternoon. Listening to Victorian novels, I could sometimes glimpse behind my toothless grandmother gnome, her chin always lightly gumming the air, a younger woman-creature, clean-limbed and walking with her children in the Chatauqua grass. When I missed an afternoon’s reading, she would offer a brief synopsis, and it was in one of these pauses as the Victrola needle scratched towards its place that my grandmother explained how Arthur had made Hetty “so that she would have a baby,” me standing in the doorway between the bathroom and the bedroom, finding myself shocked again that men had anything to do with babies. Wondering what it could be. 

About this time, having read an article in Ladies Day at the beauty parlor, my mother failed her only weak attempt at sex education. The Ladies Day writer explained that enlightened parents simply gave their children enlightened books, thus relieving them of the awkward necessity of explaining sexual intercourse; and it recommended two volumes, For Girls Only and For Boys Only. I read my volume dutifully in an afternoon, lying slantwise on my bed, feet propped against the wall. I learned all about ovaries and eggs and monthly periods and absolutely everything that the sperm does after it finds itself inexplicably in the vagina: the desperate swim up the fallopian tubes, one terrified little tadpole consummating its pilgrimage to the huge egg-shrine, looming up ahead luminous and absorbing, to be engulfed. Then came the nine months, called “gestation,” in stages like chicken eggs opened every three days at school, then the clench and release of muscled darkness, now the baby swimming toward the light. It all made perfect sense to me as I put the book down and went to my parents’ bedroom where my mother was making the bed. 

“Through already?” my mother asked. 

“Yes, ma’am,” proud at my speed. 

“Any questions?” my mother the teacher now, feeling safe. 

I brightened, glad that I knew the obvious question to ask. “Well, I understand what they said about the egg and all, but there’s one thing I don’t understand. . . .” 

“Yes,” my mother more tentative now, realizing she had not read the book. 

“I see how the . . . sperm . . . gets to the . . . egg - but how does the sperm get in the lady in the first place?” 

My mother paused, mid-pillow. She breathed in and out and turned to reach for a clean pillow-case and answered over her shoulder in defeat, “Ask your father.” Since I was not in the habit of conducting delicate conversations with my father over sperms and eggs, I knew this explanation would just have to wait. 

At this point, my mother should have given up on being an enlightened parent, but she persevered, following the next Ladies Day recommendation, and had my brother and me swap books. So next I set to reading all about testicles and penises and scrotums and urethras and glands, and about how boys shouldn’t worry if their testicles were huge or their penises infinitesimal. And for two years after, I could never look a boy my age in the face; my eyes were riveted to their crotches, and the sweat and the urine smell of male locker rooms filled my fantasies with penises that hung past knees. 

Light finally broke for me on the. Mechanics of sex, most appropriately, at a Girl Scout meeting. My troop was on its way back from Montgomery, where we had gone to be on Cartoon Carl’s TV show. I was in the back seat with my best friends at that time, Marcy and Lana. Both (at 12 years old) with boyfriends in senior high school, they conducted secret conversations that I was not privy to. I felt that they knew more of the way of the world than I did, and I found them wise and dangerous and vulnerable in a way that I loved. They were drawn to me for my ignorant innocence. This afternoon we were rocking along in the back seat of Rudy Goggins’ station wagon, Girl Scout greens be draggled, badge sashes awry, telling jokes and giggling past a blur of cotton fields and Nehi signs. Lana’s turn. “Here’s one my brother told me.” We all turned quiet and expectant. 

“See, this man and woman were on their honeymoon, and they took off their clothes, and the man said, ‘What’s that,’ and the woman said, ‘Mountains,’ and the woman said, ‘What’s that?’ and the man said, ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and the man said, ‘What’s that?’ and the woman said, ‘Lonesome Valley,’ and that night the clouds rolled over the mountains and the Lone Ranger rode into Lonesome Valley.” 

After a silent moment we all chortled loudly, and I sat there and looked out the window and finally knew. 

Another scene: Marcy and Lana and I sit on a swing under the pecan tree in Marcy’s back yard. We are tentatively swinging, feet fretting the ground. Lana is rubbing her palms, crisscrossed with a hundred tiny lines, creases ancient and sorrowful and incongruous on a 12-year-old. She is saying that her mother has told her that so many wrinkles on her hands means she will die young. 

Marcy turns suddenly to me. “Has your mother told you about sex?” 

I think about For Girls Only but know that isn’t what she means, and lie, “Yes.” 

Marcy: “Can I tell you a secret?” 

Me: “Yes.” 

Marcy: “Promise you won’t tell?” 

I nod. 

“My mother told my brothers and me about .. . it . . . and they wanted to see what it was like and . . . they did it to me.” She pauses, leaning forward in the tire swing. “But it’s okay, since I’m their sister . . . isn’t it?” 

I understand only the urgency in Marcy’s question, feel in it a request for absolution of deeds beyond my capacity to imagine. Just then her brother Bill walks out the back door, stopping still on the top porch step. The three of us look over, and he catches Marcy’s eye and holds it for a full ominous moment before his head flicks and he bounds out of the yard. Marcy is looking at the ground now, and I lean forward and say, “Yeah, sure Marcy, yeah, sure it’s okay.”