Thursday, February 16, 2006

More great moments in my psychosexual development...

There are two types of tenth graders: those who look forward to gym class and those who don’t. As hard as it might be to believe, I was in the latter category. Uncoordinated, cerebral, and contemptuous of the St. Paul School District for forcing me to throw balls and run around in circles when I could have been parsing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I was a through-and-through dork, the sort of kid a physical education teacher takes one look at and thinks “Christ, this is going to be embarrassing for everyone...” Even though I showed a peculiar aptitude for–of all things–badminton, virtually every other sport was just another opportunity for me to demonstrate before my peers my relentless ineptitude on the field of competition. Of all the mortifications inflected on me, none was more fraught than the swimming unit. Not only did I have to risk drowning and chlorine-induced rashes, I also had to be among my classmates–girls, even–without my shirt on. I was an excessively modest lad, and I was worried that my skinny and hairless fifteen year old body was somehow more objectionable than any other skinny and hairless fifteen year old body.

This anxiety was enhanced by the presence of a certain young lady who I had tender feelings towards. Let’s call her Phyllis. She was a tall, blond girl with a sharp wit and bad times in her past. I’m a sucker for that kind. It was a nightmare at first, attempting to be charming while almost naked. The quality of my banter took a steep decline, as I had to give most of my mind over to worrying about my physique and constant self-reminders not to stare at her thighs. She was a charitable thing, fond of the underdog, and she still spoke to me after our first swim day, an hour I spent with her along the edge of the shallow end, giggling like a freak as our teacher solemnly intoned the safety rules. As far as I was concerned, there was only one rule: don’t pop wood. A guy I knew pretty well–we’ll call him Larry–had broken that rule the year before and we were still talking about how gross that was. I didn’t want to be that year’s Larry. I needed to maintain control. Anyone who’s ever been a teenage boy can attest to how difficult this can be. Back then, a spring breeze coming at me from the right angle could do the job.

The amount of concentration I devoted to the task of remaining unaroused made it so that I never actually learned to swim. My floundering attempts at crossing the shallow end of the pool with the backstroke, the doggy stroke, the breast-stroke or whatever other dirty-named techniques they tried to teach me, were enough to earn only pained head-shakes from the teacher, who by this time was too used to my shit to try and inspire me anymore. I spent most of the time wading aimlessly with fair Phyllis, no keen swimmer herself, and gradually my wisecracks grew less frantic, my agitation grew less obvious. Not that I was the suave gentleman writing for you today, by any means. I was still a miserable and horny adolescent, still preoccupied with my swim class mantra: Don’t stare at her thighs, don’t pop wood, don’t stare at her thighs, don’t pop wood...

My fixation on these koans prevented me from noticing that I had a competitor for Phyllis’ affections. This was a boy I’ll name Frankie. Frankie was the class misfit, far more of a misfit than I ever was. He had a flat head topped with a greasy thicket of reddish hair, breathtakingly bad acne, and teeth as yellow as lemondrops. All of this, when combined with his unpleasant personality, conspired to consign him to utter social rejection. I was more than a few kilometers from cool myself and I rejected him, so that should tell you something.

But, as I’ve noted already, Phyllis wasn’t the type to make a loser feel like a loser. She was nice to Frankie, she nodded politely through his interminable conversations about the comic books he liked and how he longed to kill the popular kids, she didn’t discourage him with any outward displays of revulsion. This was all he needed, and soon he was creeping up to her while the teacher was forcing me to pretend to swim. I’d come back and hang along the rope of buoys past which I wasn’t certified to venture, listening to him babble and watching her enduring it. It wasn’t so bad, really. I liked watching her.

Besides, I didn’t dare interrupt. Frankie struck us all as unstable and it seemed prudent to remain off his list of classmates who he wanted to murder in horrible ways. When the teacher blew the whistle, we’d have to haul off to the showers together, and I didn’t put much past him: he could have tripped me, shoved me, stabbed me, or spread inaccurate and damaging rumors about my anatomy. We were rivals, after all. I didn’t want to provoke him unnecessarily. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the teacher called out his name and forced him to pretend to swim for a little while. When that happened, I was confident that I could succor her with my self-deprecating wit and my “non-crazy” demeanor.

This was pretty much our routine for the first week of the swim unit. We’d each take turns subjecting her to our atrocious, oblique wooing techniques for fifty minutes or so, and then we’d retire to the locker room. There, we might have shot each other a few dirty looks, but this was as open as our combat ever became. I tried to take the high ground; I resisted the temptation to put him down. In our quiet war, I cast myself as the hubristic superpower while he was the plucky-but-doomed rouge state. It was obvious that I was going to win, but I wanted to triumph with dignity. I imagined that would make my victory so much sweeter.

After a weekend to fine-tune my simultaneous seduction and not-popping-wood strategies, I returned to gym class with new confidence. Let Frankie throw his most exciting Dungeons and Dragons story at Phyllis, his most passionate homecoming-king-mutilation fantasy; she wouldn’t have time for it after being exposed to my unquenchable sang froid and my mysterious, brooding vulnerability. I was bad. I was the slickest tomcat in AP English.

Phyllis showed up in her new bathing suit that day, however, and wrecked all that. Phyllis was a very pretty girl, and her new outfit made that fact inescapable. Where she was once appealing, she was now awe-inspiring; where she was once intimidating, she was now terrifying. I took one look at her and was a giggling loon again. I don’t remember our conversation, but it must have been excruciating for us both. When the teacher called for me to come and demonstrate for him how little I had learned over the past week, I waded away with something very much like relief. I’m sure I noticed Frankie slinking through the shallow end to come and take my place. Stay away from that beautiful creature, I must have thought, she will soon be mine. Oh yes, I will make her my own.

As I thrashed across the water, the teacher rolling his eyes at me for the 1,392th time that semester, I was contemplating a new approach. Boldness was the key, I had decided. Phyllis had raised the stakes by making it plain how lovely she was, I had to follow her lead. I would bring my unease out into the open and compliment her on her swimsuit. I would set aside my nervous jokes and bad witticisms for once and take up the honesty gambit. What could be the harm, after all? Who doesn’t like to be complimented? And I felt our relationship had progressed to the point where we should move to the next level: confessions of our fiendish attraction for one another and then, from there, straight on to things I dared not even dream about.

I was trembling as I returned to her side of the pool. She gave me an odd look and I said, with the kind of smoothness that eludes me today, “It’s cold in here today.”

“Shut up,” Phyllis said, “Shut up and hide me.” She grasped my shoulders and positioned me the way she wanted me, then she crouched down behind my back, only her head visible above the water’s surface.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, with genuine bafflement.

“Do you know what he said to me?” she hissed and I knew, of course, that she was talking about Frankie, who had–I soon noticed--unaccountably wandered off into the deep end.

“What did he say?”

She moved closer to me to whisper into my quivering ear, “He said, ‘Boy, Phyllis, that swimsuit you have on is a lot better than the other one...’”

I turned to face her and she possibly mistook my shock and confusion for sympathy. I lost no time; I said, “Jesus. What a creep!”

“I know!” she said before she took hold of my arm and spun me around again. “Just shut up and hide me!”

I gazed across at his blotchy pink head bobbing in the distance. “What a creep. What a total creep.” I told her, but the whole time I couldn’t help thinking, Shit, you just dodged a bullet there...