“I know what you’re up to, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
It was a sentence uttered more than 40 years in my past, but I still felt its sting up until a week ago.
Saegertown, PA 1977:
I opened my dresser drawer, hoping desperately to find anything to save me. My eyes caught a shimmer in the back right corner – those scratchy gold-tinged disco socks grandma had given me for Christmas!
“Don’t worry, you’ll grow into them.” She had said. Maybe I would someday, but tonight they would be my salvation. I grabbed them, slid the drawer shut and plopped onto the floor to put them on.
“What are you doing? Hurry up!” My cousin whispered. Well, technically he was my “step” cousin, if there was such a thing. I forced my foot into the opening of the knee-high sock falling onto my back as my foot extended in the air, my fingers barely holding onto the glittery fabric. I was in a panic. What if they thought I was a sissy?
“My feet are cold!” I said in a hushed but forced voice. We definitely didn’t want anyone waking up and checking on us now. I jammed my other foot into the second sock and did a belly roll over to where the cousins and my sister sat. In the middle of the shag carpet sat an empty beer bottle. The opening was pointing towards me, gaping at me like an open-mouthed snake. A whiff of stale beer filtered into my nose, making me think of my stepfather. I shuddered not sure if it was because of him or the new game our cousin was about to teach me – spin the bottle.
I was exposed to sexualized behavior at an age where I was still too young to understand what was happening. Two lovers groping in a garage, bathing suits falling to the floor; a baby sitter who used me as a means to a selfish end, a stepfather who took advantage of me and threatened me into silence. My body responded in ways I learned to equate with a complex mix of longing, guilt, punishment, and shame.
Up until this point, my longing had always been for attachment, if I did what they asked of me, I would be loved and engulfed in unconditional acceptance. This is never what happened. Instead my desire to be cared for as a child was inevitably followed with being shamed, threatened, and sometimes cruel punishment.
This time was different. An 11-year-old boy had suddenly appeared in my life along with his two younger siblings. At seven, I had never understood how boys grew into men, how our smooth-skinned bodies would sprout hair, get stronger, and transform into the likes of my stepfather. But as this strange new game unfolded, my mind was making more connections, helping me make sense from the entwined lovers, my babysitter, and waterlogged showers with my stepfather.
As a pile of clothing began to collect on my bedroom floor; a foundation of socks and pajama bottoms supported a top or undershirt here and there, a strange warmth began to grow deep inside me. At this point, the rest of me was shivering, my skin covered in goosebumps having sacrificed everything but my Fruit-of-the-Looms to the one-eyed brown snake spinning on the carpet. Of the five of us, only myself and the oldest cousin were down to our underwear.
We were sitting across from each other. Even in the dim light coming in from my windows, I could see how a line of fine hairs had begun to sprout up from the top of his underwear. The hair wound its way over his belly button and up towards his chest. When he had taken off his pajama top, I had seen a patch of this blonde hair swirling around each armpit too. The warmth in my underwear was getting more noticeable as I tried to investigate my cousin’s body without anyone noticing.
“It’s your turn to spin,” he said to his brother. We all looked at the 6-year-old who was already squirming in his skin. He had grabbed his Sesame Street blankie from the bunk bed to cover-up. He looked at his brother, and then over at the two girls in the room, my sister and his.
“I… I, I don’t wanna.” He said weakly.
“Awww… what’s wrong? You don’t want a little girl to see your bum?” His brother mocked. “Why don’t you just wrap up in your widdle blankie you widdle wuss.”
“Stop! Stop it or I’m telling mom!”
“Oh fine, crybaby!” He huffed. “They’re sleepy anyway. It’ll be just boys from now on.”
After my younger sister and cousin were in my sister’s room, my older cousin didn’t want to play anymore either. As the youngest crawled into the bottom bunk and the oldest unrolled his sleeping bag, I wondered why he wasn’t putting his pajamas back on.
“I sleep in my underwear all the time back home.” He said somehow guessing what I was thinking. He shrugged and lay face up on the bag, arms behind his head. While he was looking up at the ceiling, I was inspecting his body. The warmth in my underwear returned with a new, overpowering strength. It was immediately followed by a gut-wrenching pang of shame. I looked up at the top bunk and back down at my cousin. It was so far away from him. In an uncontrollable impulse, I laid down on the carpet on my side, looking at him.
It wasn’t as if I understood I was sexually aroused at seven years old. My brain coursed with electric energy and my little frame was set aflame. Maybe I wanted to be next to this boy, maybe I wanted to BE this boy, or maybe I wanted him to… want me to be next to him.
The surge of fire and electricity was followed by an icy wave of guilt. I thought about my body, scarred from head to toe. The doctors always made me take off my shirt, in the lobby of the hospital so they could see how I was healing from the open-heart surgeries. I remembered the chill of the lobby air-conditioning now and shivered.
Feeling exposed and ashamed of how I looked to those people in the hospital and how my cousin must see me, I sat up, found my pajama shirt and pulled it on over my head. He lifted his head and looked at me.
“What are you doing?” My face flushed at his attention. I curled my bare legs up and hugged them close to me, hoping to add more covering to my scarred, hairless chest.
“I’m cold again.”
He looked at me, then up at the top bunk. His eyebrows knit together in the middle.
“Why don’t you go cover up then?” Embarrassed, I quickly lay back down on the floor, using a wadded-up towel as a pillow.
“It’s warmer down here.” I said.
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged and rolled over on his side, facing the wall.
It was impossible to sleep. I laid there watching him breathe, feeling my brain charging with electricity, my body on fire one second and freezing cold the next. Slowly, an idea formed in my head. I could scooch over and be beside him. I burned with fear and excitement thinking about it. I tried it, quietly inching closer, waiting a few seconds, moving again.
After an eternity, I was close enough to his back to feel his body heat. It felt like I was starving and had snuck-up to steal love from this unsuspecting boy. He continued to sleep as I contorted my frame to match his, careful not to touch him. Sleep overtook me as I relaxed into his warmth, drawing the edge of his sleeping bag over my shoulders, trapping the heat between him and me.
“You boys want to come watch…” The door opened and the cousins’ mother stopped talking mid-sentence.
My eyes shot open as a jolt of terror ran through my heart. Daggers of light poured in from the windows, piercing my eyes, causing me to sit up and rub them with my fists. I accidentally bumped my still sleeping cousin in the process. He didn’t budge, but I remembered where I was.
All feeling of safety and acceptance had been doused by the thought of having been discovered. The lovers in the garage had never noticed me, my babysitter gave me special things to not tell my mother, and my stepfather had threatened to let the monsters get me if I ever told. But now, I was exposed and there was no where to hide, no secret to keep. I panicked. I curled up into a little ball, holding my legs, tucking my head behind my knees, and wished I was invisible. After a couple of seconds of me huddled in the middle of my bedroom floor, their mother spoke.
“What’s going on in here?”
As an adult, looking back, I now realize she probably wouldn’t have thought twice about our sleeping arrangement had she not witnessed this scrawny little boy acting like a freezing turtle, avoiding eye contact while her boys slept soundly. But I wasn’t an adult. I was a 7-year-old boy who thought he was a damaged sissy, about to be seriously punished.
“Ohhh…. I see,” she concluded. “Yeah, I know what you’re up to and you SHOULD be ashamed of yourself.” And without another word, she shut the door.
I was alone in the world. There was no one who would love me for all of me. I was broken, a burden to my mother, an embarrassment to my father, a rag for my stepfather to wipe his needs on. I didn’t deserve to be.
I didn’t want anyone to see me anymore. I lifted my head from my knees and looked through tear-filled eyes at my room. There, bi-folded door half open, was my closet, offering a hiding place. With a whimper, I crawled into its back corner and pushed the door shut behind me and cried. There a piece of me stayed.