Work In Progress

Her request seemed as random as anything that ever came out of her insightful, inflammatory mouth. “Clean out your drawers—I want to switch my chest for your dresser.”

“Jeez, Mom—what the heck are you talking about?”

“Your dresser. I want to put it in my bedroom and give you my chest of drawers. Your dresser holds more shit—clean it out so we can switch.”

“Gimme a minute—I’m alphabetizing my magic library.”

Because she was nomadic by nature, mom often grew tired of her surroundings. This is what compelled us to move so frequently, sometimes as many as three dwellings in a single year. And because she didn’t drive a car, we always packed light. To minimize log jams on issues like interior design, Mom and I shared components from the same thrifty bedroom ensemble. One chest, one dresser with mirror, two nightstands and two bedframes: a double and a single. If whatever apartment we were moving into that month couldn’t accommodate mom’s desk, Dictaphone and IBM typewriter, I’d end up with the big bed and dresser and mom would make do with the single bed, chest and night stand.

Why mom wanted to switch dressers in this home was not readily apparent. We’d lived there for months before she got the urge to redecorate. After shelving my treasured volumes on prestidigitation, I begrudgingly complied. Before I could empty the contents of my massive dresser onto my bed, Mom had already dragged her chest of drawers into the hallway. After helping her shove my empty dresser into her crowded chamber, I began the painstaking process of restocking my chest. Socks and underwear up top, T-shirts and shorts in the middle, color-coordinated bed linens in the bottom. That’s when I found two items mom had overlooked: a scratchy synthetic blanket and a paperback tome nearly two inches thick. The title: “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But were Afraid to Ask)” by Dr. David Reuben.

I was eleven at the time, so of course I had questions. Why do the other guys in gym class have hair on their balls? Why does my dick look like a snail in a turtleneck sweater, while John Reagan’s looks like a baby’s arm with a plum in its fist? And why did the principal of my school prefer spanking girls by bending them over his knee? I quickly buried Mom’s book beneath a Harry Houdini biography in my nightstand, then returned the blanket before she could realize what was missing. “Thanks, Harold,” she said. “I’ll need this blanket—it’s supposed to get cold tonight.” Mom slept most nights in the cozy embrace of a single-malt fog—what did she know about cold?

It if snowed dog shit in our living room that evening, I wouldn’t have noticed. Mom’s sex manual consumed me. So many questions. So many answers. And each one spelled out in such a captivatingly dry, pedantic manner. Fellatio. mom called me a cocksucker all the time—is this what she meant? Masturbation. Now there was a word I could use to impress the girls at the park. Cunillingus. Sounded reasonable to me, especially after learning how difficult it is for women to experience vaginal orgasms. Orgasms. So that’s what happened every time I washed my dick. A dick, I was relieved to learn, that was exactly three-eighths of an inch longer than average. It took me three days to finish Dr. Reuben’s manual, and another month to show it off to friends. Mom didn’t know it, but her book had turned me into a guru among every sexual neophyte in the sixth grade. Or did she?

After learning everything anyone could ever want to know about sex from mom’s weighty tome, an even bigger question arose. How was I going to get rid of it? I couldn’t simply give it back. Doing so would instantly brand me as a sexual deviant. A depraved, vaginally fixated, onanistic sexual deviant. Neither was hiding the book in perpetuity an option, although storing it as I had for the previous five weeks inside the dust bag on mom’s Hoover was an inspired bit of subterfuge. My mother was more likely to translate the New Testament into Sanscrit than push a vacuum.

No, for me, digesting Dr. Ruben’s manual was much easier than disposing of it. We lived about 500 yards from a small neighborhood lake. I could have tied my book to a rock and thrown it in the water. Better yet, my best friend Kenny Bacon had a fireplace—why didn’t I just burn it, or simply throw it in a dumpster on my way to school?

Faced with too many fool-proof choices, I did what any teen-ager blinded by birds and bees might do: I threw it on the roof of the house. As long as mom didn’t climb the tree in our back yard, my secret would be safe. Besides, we were probably going to move in ten weeks, anyway. In the end, Dr. Rueben’s book decomposed peacefully beneath the brilliant Florida sun. And in sex-ed with Coach Peepers, my knowledge of all things vulgar and profane shined just as bright.

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