by: John Patrick Henry ((Header art, entitled “In Retrospect,” is by the incredibly talented Bojana Randall.))
Timeless human struggles unfold across a journey through life…..
He experiences everything at once – light, cold, gravity, touch. There are no words for these things. Words do not yet exist. Taken from the dim, wet warmth of her body, he knows only that this is not what was. If a word did exist, it would be “alone.” He has never been alone before. Now he will always be alone.
His skin is shocked by an assault of cool air and his body invaded by gloved hands and instruments of steel. He is hung upside down by his feet and passed from one set of hands to another. There is no word to describe this. If a word did exist, it would be “fear.” He has never felt fear before. Now it will always be there, lying in wait within him.
Placed upon his mother’s body, he recognizes her sound and smell. Her smell is his smell. Where his body touches hers there is a loss of boundaries and his fear dissolves in the warmth where their skins meet. Words do not yet exist to describe this connection. If a word did exist, it would be “love.” He has never felt love before. Now he will always search for it.
He looks up and squirms at the sound of her voice. Lying before her gaze, legs apart, air rushing across his bare skin, his smile returns her own. He knows well the eyes looking down and waits for the touch of her hands on his naked skin. She caresses his stomach, making warm circles round his navel with one hand as she supports his head with the other. He is enthralled with her touch and shifts his body upward to meet it.
His movements seem random and involuntary, but his body seeks her hands. His joy crests before a shock of moisture and cold against his bottom pulls him back down. Her hands, rough like a workman’s, lift his legs to wipe again and his smile turns on its axis. He whimpers as she wraps him in soft white cloth and lifts him from the padded comfort of the changing table. She holds him against her shoulder. He buries his face in her neck. The unfocused desire for her touch remains.
Careening across the room on unsteady legs he hears the laughter of women. She chases him into the kitchen, holding the diaper in her hand, and corners him against a tall cupboard. She carries him back and lays him on the floor in the middle of the room to complete her task. They tease her about his barely visible organ. He is confused by the smiling, painted faces that hover over him and looks to her for reassurance. Though many words exist for him now, there is none yet to describe this feeling. If a word did exist it would be “shame.” Now this feeling will often arise at the sound of a woman’s laugh.
He lies upon a bed, his head bathed in sweat from sleep. The laughter of female cousins rouses him, but his eyes remain closed. The sheet sticks to his hot skin. Soon he will be older, he thinks, and naps become just another part of his past. He listens. They have been swimming. They wonder if he is truly asleep, if it is safe to undress. His eyes become slits – they detect vague shadows and movement – then quickly shut again. He works to keep his breath still, feigning sleep. He wonders if they know, and what they will do if his sleep seems real to them. He imagines that a different world, an unknown world, might be opened to him. When one whispers, “What does it matter? He is just a little boy!” they laugh and begin to remove their wet suits. He can hear the rustle of clothing but keeps his eyes closed. He is trapped between a desire to look and the knowledge that by looking he would be found out and lose the very opportunity to see. To see what? He doesn’t know. Something that he cannot yet imagine. His eyes remain closed. He assumes this world will always be closed to him.
The heat of the attic room warms his blood. He is of school age, but it is summer and the days are long and empty. There is time to be idle, time to imagine and do things extraordinary. He has a partner in this – a younger female cousin. Much teasing has led to this moment. Talk of things hidden, of differences. They know without being told that there is a rule against this, but do not know why. They know only that the taboo itself is what makes the thing worth doing. They listen for sounds of the adults below. Without speaking they shed their clothes and climb onto the unmade bed. Their thin bones show through bare white skin. They fall together, the boy on top of her. Without knowing why, they know this is the way to do it. The air is thick in the hot room. They embrace without looking, without seeing each other. Their mouths do not touch. There is no purpose to the clutching, no center within each of them where such feelings could reside or grow. The air is heavy with anticipation and danger. There is no shame, only the fear of discovery. A sound startles them and they break apart. They dress quickly. They never do or speak of this again.
He is forever climbing. Everything is there to be climbed – monkey bars, fences, but most of all, trees. If he uses his pocketknife to mark his initials at the highest point, he will be King, but his reign will end if another boy climbs higher to inscribe his own. To begin the climb, he hangs from a low branch, swings his legs back and forth until, gaining momentum, he can wrap his feet around it and pull himself up. He rests there before climbing on. Once, in the struggle to start his climb, his legs straining upward, a warm shiver runs between his thighs. Days later it happens again, stronger this time. He feels the warmth run through him. The feeling is intoxicating, nameless. He traces the source of the warmth and marks it in memory. He is forever climbing.
In the woods above the creek, away from adults and their rules, he and his friends are free. The boys vary in age, some still children, others older, with hair forming in new places. The biggest and strongest are in charge, but knowledge trumps strength if one knows the secrets adults are slow to share. There is boasting and claims of understandings about bodies and what certain parts are for. One boy with leg braces made of steel and who maneuvers with a stooped, bouncing walk, claims to have seen his mother in the bath. Trying to describe what he alone has seen, he reaches for a picture they can understand. “Like a hairy football,” he says, but the description helps no one. Later, after he has gone, it is said of him that for fifty cents he will put your thing in his mouth. He wonders why he would do this, and why anyone would pay for it, but he asks no questions. A vague sense of the answer makes him uneasy. Perhaps he knows that the truth would change him, change his world in some way. Perhaps this is the very same uneasiness Adam felt when Eve first offered the apple.
Girls appear. Their existence blends with other changes going on inside him. Time spent with boys becomes less important. Being close to one girl in particular makes him feel wonderfully dizzy. He finds it hard to breathe in her presence. His chest and the heart within it swell when he learns, third hand, that she shares his feelings. Suddenly, the touch of sunlight on his skin is softer, and the air is filled with new smells. The world is larger, more things possible. They walk holding hands, an act of courage that proves his love. Because of their youth they can be alone together only in public, but one day she tells him that her parents will be gone and he can visit. They know what this could mean, and though afraid of her father, he is more fearful of missing this chance to take the next step, to become someone different. Their kiss is brief, but seems to last forever. It exists even now.
The priest explains to the boys that there are things they must not do if they are to remain worthy in the eyes of God. One of these things is something the boy now thinks about, and is capable of doing, on a daily basis. This makes the boy and (he assumes) God very sad because this forbidden thing is too powerful to resist and always at hand. The priest says that they can comfort God if they admit to their sins in Saturday confession, but he wonders how to do so without embarrassment. The priest has no more desire to hear the details of the act than the boys wish to provide them. How to discretely acknowledge their crime? He gives them a phrase, “impure thoughts and deeds,” and now Saturdays become an endless line of boys repeating this mantra in exchange for three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers. For the boy this solves one problem but creates another. How, he wonders, can someone have pure love for another if it leads to desires which God has said are impure? And with this thought, the battle between sex and love has been joined.
His virginity is lost to a girl more experienced than he, with an assist from Henry Ford. Opportunities for teenagers and sex to meet expand geometrically once the keys to the family car are handed over. There is now privacy, comfortable seats, heat, and rock and roll music to fan the flames. She takes full advantage of it and him, though he is a willing accomplice. She leads his hands to places they’ve never been. He roams her body above the waist with confidence, but not even a topographical map could solve the mysteries of what lies below. With time and her patience, they complete the act that is purported to make of him a man, but in his moral confusion he remains a child. Immediately afterwards there comes regret. Regret that lasts a few days before he returns to her again. And again.
As he grows older he finds other lovers, but sex and guilt are now linked in his mind. He had hoped that love could pull them apart – that true love would sanctify the act in God’s eyes – but these partners were lovers in name only, so his theory went untested. Eventually, he decides that only marriage has the power to sanctify the act. He has yet to meet someone worthy to be his bride but life has other plans, and so he learns that sex would have consequences beyond guilt. When a girl becomes pregnant he does the right thing, if not for him then for her, their child, and society. Having received the approval of both God and Man, he is now able to experience the profoundest pleasure without guilt or shame. Even the loss of his freedom and future plans to a forced marriage is trumped by the sexual paradise he found. Marriage is a license to fuck, guilt free, one that he pulls out and presents at every opportunity. The song on the radio sings, “Wouldn’t it be nice?” and it is, at least for the first few years.
Sex within marriage is free of guilt and fear, but not boredom. Their lovemaking becomes like a game of chess where each player repeats the opening gambit. It is all too easy to lose interest in the match. He begins to notice other women in a way he hadn’t before. Strangely enough, they also seem to notice him, which makes him nervous. He’d always had the typical man’s difficulty in understanding how or when to approach women, but now they accost him, unbidden. His friends tell him it is because he is married, that this makes him more attractive to a certain type of woman. It was like that saying that it is easier to find a job if you already have one. He is getting offers now without having to put in an application. His fidelity could have been saved had his love for her been strong enough. He wonders if his love for their child was too strong, that there wasn’t enough left for her. Regardless of the reason, he eventually receives an offer that he isn’t strong enough to refuse. She is blonde, young, a free spirit, and possesses the essential quality that his wife would never have – she is not her. He tries to do the right thing, but his resistance was down and he succumbs. The divorce is amicable – i.e., he gives her everything. This is the entry fee he pays to join what had become, when he wasn’t looking, the age of free love.
They were together only a short while – one doesn’t build a future with a free spirit. But the time spent with her helps break the spell the priest had cast upon him. With her he learns to remain in the sexual present, how to appreciate the experience for itself, outside of its context. When she leaves, as he knew she would, he finds himself alone, but open now to new possibilities. He partakes of many experiences – new variations with new partners, and in multiple combinations. The strange quality of these experiences makes them feel valuable at first, but that dissipates with time, replaced with a sense of rootlessness, a feeling of being one more interchangeable part in the play of passion. He begins to feel that if it doesn’t matter what you do or with whom you do it, then maybe it and you don’t matter either. Coming to the realization that, for him anyway, free love was neither free nor love, he begins his search again.
Years and a succession of frivolous relationships pass by. There comes a time when he abandons the search for love. He still enjoys sex, having learned that love wasn’t a necessity for that, but he comes to accept that a truly profound sexual love is not to be his. It is the very abandonment of this single-minded search that leaves his heart open to recognize it when it does, finally, appear. He finds himself pursuing someone he had long known, but previously dismissed as not his type. Once his head is out of the way, his heart can see that this is life’s missing piece. Sex becomes sanctified, an expression of love, not an end in itself. During these times he experiences a loss of boundaries that echoes back to when there were no words to describe such things.
J. Patrick Henry is a retired public servant who moved on from writing memos to more personal prose, both fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Perspective Literary Quarterly, Scrutiny, The Sun, The Mysteries of Suspense (anthology), and The Buffalo News.