Friday, May 31, 2013

Unprotected


Oh, to be a teenager! To be filled with hope and cynicism in equal amounts. To be simultaneously arrogant and ashamed. To be an inexperienced know-it-all. To be lustful and fearful, horny and chaste, eager and incompetent. To grope your girlfriend awkwardly on an unopened sleeper sofa, silently and fruitlessly dry humping, while your parents watch Night Court in the bedroom down the hall. Oh, to be a teenager! May I never be one again.

Sex and adolescence do not go well together. My memories are somehow suppressed yet crystalline; like a Jurassic bug trapped in amber. I cling to the logic that says that I wasn’t the only pimpled and brace-faced teenager who found his way under the shirt and over the bra, only to wake up the next morning wondering why it hurt to walk. Memories of my early, Clouseau-esque investigations into sexuality are laced with a combination of pride (I started on the early side), shame (I was, shall we say, underprepared), and regret (the teen libido yields some questionable choices).



But now I have two children. Suddenly I view my early sexual experiences through a rather different lens. Pride, shame, and regret have been replaced by outright fear. It's not that I fear the objectification that is the specialty of libidinous young men. (It’s easy to think this has gotten worse in the age of the internet and reality shows, but I doubt it.) Nor is it fear rooted in the anticipatory anger that my children will be pressured into something too soon.  No, what I fear is that they will be subjected to the familiar idiocy of teenage sexual awakening; the na├»ve and falsely romanticized awkwardness of where-does-this-go and what-happens-if-it-I-touch-that. If only I could spare them. But how?




I had a girlfriend when I was 18.  She was not my first. I’d learned a few things by then.  That said, we were seniors in high school. Future generations of libertines will not study film of our escapades.

Now that I have kids, I reflect on the uneasy and inconsistent rules that our various parents had for our conduct under their roofs. My father and step-mother were the most permissive. Her father and step-mother were the least (which was not the main reason that were never went there, though it surely could have been).

My mother maintained a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, though even the policy was largely unspoken. If we stayed in my room for more than an hour with the door closed, she sent out maternal sonar that caused us to cease and detach, and emerge sheepishly to ask what was for dinner.

Viewed through my new parent lens, her mother’s approach was the most vexing. We were allowed to be alone in the bedroom of their tiny apartment with the door closed, unsupervised, for any length of time. The only rule was that I absolutely could not spend the night.

So we would sequester ourselves in her room for hours, doing tamely unspeakable things to each other; the sort of ribald groping that would make a Puritan blush. Occasionally we’d break from our hunting and pecking to say how much we loved each other, to affirm the permanence of that love, and to giggle quietly at how much noise we weren’t making.

Then, sometime before the second sunrise, I would slip silently out of her room. We’d pause at the apartment’s heavy front door and kiss with brazen tenderness as her mother dozed in the living room. I’d step into the hallway of their Deco building and ride the birdcage elevator down seven floors. My ’85 Accord, parked four blocks away, waited to take me home.

I drove west on Lombard, past the Palace of Fine Arts. I rolled the window down and put the heat on full blast. I felt the foggy morning air on my face. A Led Zeppelin mix tape played Ramble On. Crossing the bridge, I could see the first notion of dawn above the Easy Bay hills; the black of night greeting the dark blue and violet of daybreak.  

I felt indescribably alive. My head tilted back and a smile overcame my face. The moment’s radical freedom carried my mind to a place I had never been. I was growing up before my own eyes, acutely aware of the newness of my experience. It was the pure and unsullied joy of finally being old enough, without considering for even a second that I would ever be too old. My body, still tingling from a long night of teasing and titillation, seemed to feel the world more intensely. My heart beat faster as I accelerated down the Waldo Grade, pushing the ordinary white sedan past 100 miles an hour.  I was invincible.

Reflecting on that feeling, I realize that the fears I have about my children are misguided and mislabeled. I am not afraid for them. I am afraid for myself. Will I have the courage to let them feel as awkward as I did? Will I let them be embarrassed? Will I let them get hurt? Will I let them regret? Will I let them spend hours alone in a room with a boyfriend of girlfriend?

Do I have a choice?

Sometimes I think they are best left unprotected. I cannot spare my children from the very things that define childhood.  I cannot shield them from the pain of adolescence unless I am willing to rob them of its pleasures. My parents were kind enough to let me get lost, so that I could know the joy of finding myself. I hope I have the courage to do the same for my kids. 

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