This room, a closet actually, measures six feet by ten feet. The ceiling is high in the center and slopes down toward a window. The walls are papered with big, red cabbage roses. Looking out the window, you see a filbert orchard, a child’s swing set, an old car resting on blocks. The view is distorted because the glass is cracked and wavy with age. The floor is wooden, the pieces joined tightly so there are no cracks. It is summer and the room is dusty and hot.
This is the room where sex began.
I don’t know how we knew what to do. We had no instructions. We were very young. The implements of our sexual play were simple: a small metal table and chairs with foam-covered seats, a wastebasket, a box of toothpicks. My cousin Bobby, seven years old, was sweaty from the hot day. His hair was cut so short his scalp shone through, red and painful-looking. His nose was sunburned, his eyes pale blue. Bobby was skinny, and looked as if he were about to break, so fragile was his skin.
I was six years old. My hair was long, messy, hanging in my eyes; like a river of mud, it flowed over my face and shoulders. I wore a pair of cut-off jeans belonging to my brother. In defiance of the rules that governed my sisters, whose breasts were beginning to show, I wore no shirt. My chest was pale, my nipples two tiny pink dots. My stomach was streaked with dirt, rivulets of sweat running down.
Bobby and I were tired. His family was visiting for a week, and we’d been up late every night since they arrived. I realize now Bobby’s parents hated him. I don’t know why. They seemed to hate everything around them. Their laughter was cold, and their jokes were never meant for the kids to share.
The day they came to our house, Bobby was in trouble. His mother grabbed his short hair and pulled him into the trailer they were sleeping in behind our house. She closed the door, but I could still hear Bobby’s cries and the steady slap of a belt against bare skin. Later, she came out of the trailer alone, carrying a glass filled with a pale orange drink. The ice cubes clinked in the glass as she walked. I cannot picture her without remembering this sound — this cold, hard sound.
The fourth day of their visit, Bobby and I were looking for a place to escape the other kids, his mother, and her pale orange drinks, and we ended up standing at the doorway to the closet. We could hear the other children running and yelling in the yard, their voices muffled through the glass. We were alone.
I stepped through the doorway first, pulling Bobby with me. He kicked the door closed behind him, then looked surprised at the sound it made slamming. Suddenly we were awkward, embarrassed to look at each other. Our feet shuffled in the dust of the floor. Bobby rubbed his hand back and forth over his crew cut. Then he spotted the old metal wastebasket near the window and threw it over his head, dancing a crazy dance in that hot and dusty room. I began to dance too. We twirled and yelled, banging into each other, bumping into the walls. At one point I went to the window and yelled to the kids below, risking our freedom, risking our privacy, for the sake of this dance. Our wild twirling seemed to last forever.
Bobby collapsed on the floor first, the wastebasket hitting the floor with a hollow, metallic thud. I lay down beside him. Our stomachs rose and fell rapidly, our chapped lips parted as we tried to catch our breath. I watched Bobby as he lay there panting, his skinny legs like sticks poking out of his pants. Dust was caught in his hair, and his small hands were folded over his stomach. He looked peaceful. Almost too peaceful, as if he were dead, or would be soon. I couldn’t stand the thought of being in the closet if Bobby died.
I stood up and hooked the wastebasket with my foot, pulling it close to me, next to Bobby’s head. I nudged his shoulder with my toe, and as he turned to look I slowly pulled my shorts down to my ankles. Bobby’s eyes went wide. I squatted over the wastebasket and closed my eyes. At first there was only a quiet trickling, and then the sharp odor of urine filled the closet. Bobby raised himself up on his elbows. I could feel him watching my face. He didn’t say a word. When I finished I stood up and wiped myself with my shorts. Bobby looked into the wastebasket. Then he kicked his shorts off and stood over the basket holding his small penis with both hands. He leaned slightly backward, and a steady stream poured from him. I watched, fascinated, as he moved his penis this way and that, directing the stream to hit the sides of the basket.
When he finished, we were quiet for a moment, then we both looked into the basket. We began to laugh. When our laughter began to die down, we looked back into the basket, and somehow the sight of all that pee started us up again. I had seen my brothers pee before, but never had it seemed so personal, meant only for me.
I went to the window and saw the yard was empty. I told Bobby we should dump the pee out the window before we got caught. Bobby opened the window, and I tipped the wastebasket, pouring the pee into the bushes below. The basket was nearly empty when I lost my grip. It fell past the kitchen window and landed a few feet away from the bushes, empty and dented. Bobby and I closed the window.
He started chanting, over and over, “We’re gonna get it, we’re gonna get it, we’re gonna get it.” A wastebasket in the yard was nothing unusual in my family; you could find almost anything out there if you looked long enough. But to Bobby it must have seemed as big as the moon and just as alien. In his mind there was no way anyone could miss seeing that wastebasket. And his mark was on it — he had peed in that basket.
Bobby decided we should punish ourselves. I didn’t think we needed punishment, but he seemed so determined to feel bad that I went along with him. He removed some toothpicks from the box on the table and began sticking them in five straight lines into the foam cushions on two of the chairs. Then we sat on the chairs with our naked bottoms resting on the toothpicks.
If we’d been bigger, I’m sure we would have broken them, but our weight only drove the toothpicks a little deeper into the foam. We perched there, the muscles in our legs trembling, trying to keep our full weight off the spikes. This was our punishment — a punishment that was vaguely exciting. The smell of dust and urine and fear filled the room. Our bodies, pale in places, sunburned in others, hung suspended over the chairs.
Suddenly I heard a clanging sound: my little brother had found the wastebasket and was kicking it around the yard. I felt we were safe; the wastebasket now belonged to my brother, not us.
I told Bobby to come to the window. When he got up, his white bottom was dotted with red where the toothpicks had pierced it. His skinny arms were crossed over his chest. “It’s OK,” I told him. “They don’t even know we’re up here.” Bobby put his arms around me from behind, pressing his skinny body tightly against me. He began to rub my chest with his hands. “This is how you make babies,” he told me. I knew it wasn’t. I knew a baby came from a penis going inside a woman, but I didn’t tell Bobby. I couldn’t stand for him to be wrong.
Soon we heard our names being called. Bobby quickly put his shorts on. I had used mine to wipe myself; I couldn’t wear them now. I balled them up and stuffed them under the table. “You go downstairs, Bobby. I have to get some clean pants.” He nodded and walked toward the door. His hands went up to his head, rubbing his hair and knocking the dust out. He opened the door slightly and slipped out, and I heard his footsteps running down the hall.
I sat down on the floor and waited for a minute before I left the closet. The toothpicks were still sticking in the chairs. I wanted to pull them out, but I felt too naked now that Bobby was gone. It was hot in the closet, but I was shivering.
Many years later, my mother told me that she knew Bobby and I had peed in the wastebasket. One of the older kids had seen us from his perch in a filbert tree and told her. She had kept our secret so Bobby would not be beaten. I wondered if she knew about the toothpicks.
Bobby was dead when my mother and I talked about the wastebasket. He had been working in a cold-storage plant and selling insurance in his spare time. He wasn’t married, but he had a steady girlfriend. The story I got was that he had taken some sleeping pills, lain down in one of the cold-storage lockers, and frozen to death.
I last saw Bobby when I was eleven years old. I always felt sorry for him, for his skinny arms, for the torture he suffered at his mother’s hands, for the way he had believed babies to be made. When I found out he was dead I wasn’t surprised: I had seen it that day in the closet, in the way he had lain on the floor so peacefully.