Only at thirteen is it acceptable to own both a hamster and a Bo Derek wet tee-shirt poster, one of which serves as a compulsive masturbation aid (don’t judge). My bedroom was in a transitional state. I still had slot cars and Evel Knievel stunt cycles, airplane curtains and a Stretch Armstrong doll; but I also had band posters and blacklight posters like the ones I’d seen in Mike’s room — skeletons on motorcycles and other stoner chic. They shared wall space with Bo, Cheryl Tiegs and whatever scantily clad bikini poster I thought I could get away with.
My Spencer Gifts white whale was a poster of a woman in a tennis skirt sans panties scratching her bare behind. Alas, our one-handed-romance-to-be remained unconsummated. I knew my parents’ limits, though I somehow managed to hang the “Bicycle Race” poster from Queen’s Jazz album without repercussions.
Jazz was not my first Queen album. Like a lot of guys my age that honor belongs to News of the World, home of “We Will Rock You /We Are the Champions.” They weren’t my favorites on that album, though. The Freddie-tastic “Spread Your Wings” and “It’s Late” top that particular playlist.
Freddie Mercury was a miracle. The man danced around in a leotard singing light opera and faux show tunes all while fronting a band named for his sexual orientation, and yet he managed to maintain credibility with the Guys in Black Tee Shirts Who Jam crowd. How? By sandwiching hard jams like “Sheer Heart Attack” between the lighter songs, and opening side two of News… with the borderline pornographic “Get Down Make Love.” The latter joined Alice Cooper’s “Nurse Rosetta” on my “offend my sister” playlist. Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” was on there, too, but not for content. She simply couldn’t stand the song, which was my cue to play it loud and often.
I received News of the World straight across for Ted Nugent’s Weekend Warriors in a trade with the kid down the street. In retrospect the dude should have taken me to small claims court. Sorry, Uncle Ted, but the only thing truly memorable about Weekend Warriors is the Bally pinball machine tie-in and that isn’t really that good either. But News of the World? Tasty from “We Will Rock You” all the way to “My Melancholy Blues.” “It’s Late” ranks among the most overlooked climbing songs ever, but don’t take my word — go find it for yourself.
I think the kid down the street was onto Bo and me, though. He was one of four brothers. “I found a dirty sock under Mark’s bed,” he told me after hanging out in my room. “You know what I mean, ‘dirty sock’?”
“No,” I lied, and then made sure to toss my cell for dirty laundry before any future visits.
Pat Benatar eventually moved in on Bo’s territory. She arrived on a full page of Creem magazine in a purple and black tiger-striped leotard, pouty-mouthed and sleepy-eyed. She squatted facing the camera, knees wide. It was love at first leer. Debbie Harry appeared in the same issue, a strategic rip in her white tee nearly exposing a nipple. It’s a wonder I left my bedroom that year.
A coworker once came to me with her deep concern that her thirteen year old visited playboy.com. I didn’t know what to tell her aside from: 1) You’re lucky it was Playboy and not something involving a donkey or a cup; and 2) If my parents put the world’s largest porn jukebox in my room when I was thirteen my hamster would’ve died of starvation. I probably would have, too.
But no, you kids today have it easy. When I was your age I had to walk ten miles uphill in the snow just to get a peek of the lingerie section of the Sears catalog, and I liked it. Those were the analog days, when Farrah was the only al fresco celebrity exiting a limo.
Sex and music were intermingled for me. Listening to bad ass Pat sing “Heartbreaker” stirred the same feelings as watching her stare me down from the pages of Creem. These two forces ran into the puttering VW of my puberty at 150 mph.
Around the same time my parents donated my yard work lackey services to a neighbor couple. I came home one afternoon and found them all sitting in the formal living room.
“Jim, do you know John and Diana? They live over by the back neighborhood gate.”
I shook my head no.
“John is one of the chemists where I work and Diana is a chemist, too,” said my mother. They looked nice enough: an old couple of thirty or so — both wearing glasses, John with a moustache and Diana rail thin. “They need some help with their yard.”
“I hear you’re real strong and a hard worker,” John said. Flattery, thy name is James. “How’s twenty dollars a day sound?”
That sounded like a fortune to me, so every Saturday and Sunday I walked the mile or so to John’s and Diana’s to clear brush, split wood, lay railroad ties, and whatever else they wanted done on their two acres. When we finished in the afternoons John would take me out to play pinball or frisbee, or we’d hang out in their house sipping hot cider, listening to music, and playing backgammon.
I miss those two. I truly didn’t know how much until I started scribbling about them. The were the family I never had: understanding, funny, bright, active. They took me snow and water skiing, gave me books to read. I owe them The Hobbit and Le Morte D’Arthur along with whatever science fiction they thought would hold my attention. They incorporated me into their social circle and basically gave me a bedroom in their house. They took me clothes shopping and got me out of my outlet store cast-offs, bought me Christmas presents, even took me to their family gatherings. Thirteen and selfish, I had no idea how kind and generous they were.
Only in retrospect do I wonder if perhaps there was madness at play. Diana spoke occasionally of her abusive childhood: “I had one doll and you know what my father did? He threw it in the fireplace and made me watch it burn.” As new items entered the house she would affix a “John” or “Diana” label in order to make the inevitable post-divorce sorting more efficient.
As we all grew more comfortable together Diana started calling me over to work on weekday afternoons. I would head over after school and we would weed together, me in tee-shirt and Levis, Diana in a bikini. Her top would ride up or fall down, exposing her tiny breasts, or she would bend from the waist to pull a weed and her labia would make a daring escape over the elastic wall of her bikini bottoms. I was certain that I was getting away with something, Bo and Pat be damned.
When we were through we’d sit inside with our Cokes and talk until I had to go. One afternoon she tossed this out casually: “John has a trunk full of Playboys in the office. Do you want to see them?” She walked me upstairs and opened a foot locker filled with back issues. “Put them back when you’re finished,” she said and went back downstairs. I was in stereo equipment, mixology, and airbrushed bosom heaven. Playboy wasn’t just a skin mag, it was more like the official handbook of adulthood: what car to drive; what amp to buy; what books to read; how to get the big-breasted stewardess in 3-H out of the hot tub and into the boudoir. I was getting a peek into the secret society of manliness. Also, boobies.
I don’t know how long I was alone with John’s magical foot locker, but it must have been at least a half hour before Diana knocked on the door. “How’s it going? Do you want to bring those downstairs?”
“No, I think I’ll just stay up here.”
She smiled. “I understand. I have a brother.” It didn’t occur to me what she meant.
Not too long after that John and Diana split up. I stayed in touch with John until I left home for art school, but Diana disappeared immediately. She sent me one letter from her new home in Michigan explaining that she loved me and I was a great kid but that she needed a new life so she was going to be out of touch but she’d always think fondly of me and wished me the best for my future and please write and let her know how I’m doing even though she won’t be able to respond and other empty sentiments to pad a run-on sentence. I was so angry with her for leaving that I tore up the letter and lost her address forever. I’ve forgotten her last name, too. All that remains are fond memories and disturbing confusion.
After that I packed up what toys remained in my room. Lee G and I chopped up Stretch Armstrong and stuck him to the back of my bedroom door, and my hamster died. The rest of my childhood, boxed up and taped closed, was tossed into the attic where it belonged.