A Brief History of Sex Education

Kate Flaherty

In the summer of 1979, I was Mark Merlini's girlfriend for four hours. He lived down the street and suddenly seemed cute, so we kissed for about a half-hour on the hill behind his house, facing the Route 11 bypass in Gilford, New Hampshire. He kissed with his mouth open so of course I opened mine, but our mouths created a strange suction which I found unpleasant and a little stupid. When I broke up with Mark -- after I'd walked home, had time to think about things and called him on the phone -- he thought he'd frightened me with his sexual prowess. "We don't have to make out," he said. " I guess we moved a little fast." 

"It's not that," I said. "I just don't like you," and after he protested a few more times, I hung up. My reason for breaking up with Mark was no more truthful than his vows to keep us together, but it was the best I could do when I was eleven. 

Boys like Mark were a dime a dozen. I was either friends with guys in grade school or rivals, with a reputation for being as tough, as quick, and as mean. I gained their respect by outlasting them at dodgeball, standing alone in the circle while they pitched the kickball and missed me, one by one. 

I thought I knew as much about sex as I did dodgeball, it was just that I hadn't put my expertise into practice yet. I read a lot and was a know-it-all about plenty of things I'd never done, and though I can say now knowledge without practice is pretty close to ignorance, I really thought I had a handle on things at eleven. 

I began working that year too, in a boardinghouse for men managed by my Uncle Joe, who lived there free in exchange for taking care of the place, keeping it clean. I rode my bike downtown and Joe and I would split up and each take a room, change the sheets, vacuum and dust, only seeing each other at the end of the afternoon when we'd fold the sheets from the dryer, putting them away to use the next week. 

The boardinghouse was always empty -- I never saw a soul -- and the rooms were so neat you wouldn't think anyone lived there at all outside of Uncle Joe. Each room had standard issue furniture, dark brown and clunky. The bedspreads and curtains were the heavy polyester of cheap hotel rooms in the typical colors: olive, orange, mustard yellow. The rooms were ugly and sad, and I imagined tired old men lived in them whose lives were too dull to be messy, men who had too much time on their hands to be much good at all. But signs of life popped up in the most unexpected places. Above the door frames, between the mattresses and the box springs, and inside the closets, were the most impressive and frightening pictures of naked women I'd ever seen. 

These were not your run-of-the-mill, foggy-lensed Playboy shots of cute, clean-shaven girls in cowboy hats and bandannas holding lollipops. These were mean women crouching toward the camera, ready to pounce and claw. Their thick, meaty thighs were spread wide with piles of dark, curly hair and wet, pink vaginas that looked menacing, terrifying to me. I'd seen the Playboy bunnies and I'd seen my mother lounging in the bathtub of our one-bathroom house when I absolutely had to go, but I'd never seen women like these before. Their sexuality was a weapon, their bodies housed something dark and powerful and completely alien to me. 

I could accept the childlike image of the bunny, and I felt close to the mature, maternal sexuality of my mother's body, but I had no idea what to do with the force in these split-wide, come-and-get-me pictures. I didn't know if their power was something I would have in me, if it was something I'd need to hide in the way these sad old men slid these pictures beneath their mattresses or placed above the door so they'd only get a glance before they left the room. 

Until I worked in the boardinghouse, I had this vague idea the boys were the ones to make the moves and the mistakes. After all, Mark Merlini had asked me out, and I only broke up with him because he wasn't doing it right. And I suppose I would have broken up with him had he tried to travel more bases than an eleven-year-old girl would be comfortable with. But Mark Merlini could never make me as uncomfortable as those women on the walls of the boardinghouse did, and to this day I admit that I'm still more comfortable dealing with the desires of others than coming to terms with the strength of my own. 

Kate Flaherty's stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Rosebud, Briar Cliff Review, Analecta, and Connecticut Review. The Prairie Schooner Book of Essays, which she coedited with Hilda Raz, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in Fall 2000. This is her first cyber-publication.

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