I confess: my favorite erotic aroma is chlorine. I can’t resist its siren song of smell. Chlorine imprinted itself on me as a pre-teen and I never escaped.
I thank Mrs. Walsh for this. Mrs. Walsh held swimming classes every summer at the pool of the Fontana Motor Hotel in Mission, my home town in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The pool reeked of chlorine, which clung to me and wafted around the whole complex. I could even smell it in the Fontana’s lobby, where I wandered after class.
Ever the curious reader, I checked out the magazines in the lobby’s gift shop. There I found Playboy. Golly, I thought, this is a change from Hot Rod and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. Even then, I knew an 11-year-old shouldn’t really scan Playboy, so I slipped the magazine into another one – male readers know this drill. I flipped through the issue, trying to look nonchalant. But Misses June and July dazzled me with their undraped allure and bubbly smiles.
Case in point: I still swoon for July 1969 cover girl Barbie Benton, a/k/a Barbara Klein. In the unpainted passageways of my brain, the Fontana’s chlorinic aroma mixed with this vision of Barbie on the beach. A whiff of chlorine returns me to July 1969 – those eyes, those shoulders, Barbie’s brown hair tumbling down her curving waterslide of a back. In a flash I’m back in the Fontana’s lobby, where Mrs. Walsh’s class ended and my introduction to another wet side of life began.
I’m thinking about chlorine and Playboy in light of my role as the divorced dad of a teenage son. I wonder what images and influences are shaping his view of life. I could tell him plenty about the curiosities, longings, and colossal frustrations that roiled me at his age. I could ask him, “So, what do you think is sexy, and where is it? Watchmen? Grand Theft Auto? Anime? Hannah Montana? YouTube? Hermione Granger?” That would embarrass both of us, so I let his interests develop at their own pace without imposing my own fatherly framework on whatever catches his attention. Instead, we talk about values, the meaning of peer pressure, respect for women, self-acceptance, and speaking up for what he believes. He’s a great kid who takes these issues seriously.
Forty years ago, I had to figure these things out on my own. With no Internet, no cable TV, and no older sibling, I had few outlets or role models to answer questions or help me figure out “sexy.” My mother wasn’t much for talking about the changes of adolescence, and my father moved away after they divorced in 1962, playing no role until I was a teen. I couldn’t look to the larger community for guidance. Mission shared the conservative culture of deep south Texas, where you didn’t discuss adolescent sexuality or liberal politics.
That was the surface. Look beneath, and the place throbbed with all the hormonally driven drama of any town. I knew about affairs and busted marriages; forbidden passion in Mission’s grapefruit groves and the teen pregnancies that sometimes resulted; the tears when parents wouldn’t let their kids date a Mexican (or a gringo, as happened to me); big talk about Boystown, the red-light district in Reynosa, Mexico, on the other side of the Rio Grande. I even heard – very quietly – about gays and a reputed gay bar in McAllen, that wicked metropolis east of Mission. The McAllen Monitor carried ads for the Rio Grande Valley’s own adult theater, the Capri in Edinburg, which touted itself as “where the elite meet.”
And my dear late mother blessed me with her salty and accepting take on life. She would show my brother and me mimeographs of ribald jokes and drawings that circulated at her insurance agency office. I’ll always treasure her comment upon hearing of the betrothal of an exceptionally prim young woman from the First Baptist Church of Mission. She observed, “Hmm, I guess she’ll do it by the Book.”
Against this background, I stumbled step by step toward what I liked. Some of the images made a deep impression on me, as those memories of Fontana afternoons attest. Compared to the visuals available today, Facebook, instant messaging, and the hook-up culture, my thrills were mild. But they were mine.
The actual mechanics of sex and bodies embarrassed me. Our pediatrician provided my brother Cooper and me with booklets on male and female maturation when I was around 10. Drawings showed the parts and process and where Plug A enters Socket B. I avoided the materials because they forced me to acknowledge what bubbled in my id; I couldn’t see those thoughts as normal. The booklets were about body chemistry, parents making babies, and wet dream reality, not the girls around me and unvoiceable fantasies. I shoved the booklets under a stack of Saturday Evening Post magazines in a closet.
I groped through the way of the world on my own. Insights came from surprising sources. For example, to this day I believe that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the most suggestive books ever written. Twain expressed my inchoate longings, bubbling up and around me when I noticed the early developing girls at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School.
I quoted Tom Sawyer in the Nassau Herald, the senior yearbook at Princeton University, where new graduates sum up their life philosophies at age 22. While others turned to Bruce Springsteen and Virginia Woolf, I looked to Mark Twain. The passage I selected involved Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher:
In a little while the two met at the bottom of the lane, and when they reached the school they had it all to themselves. Then they sat together, with a slate before them, and Tom gave Becky the pencil and held her hand in his, guiding it, and so created another surprising house. When the interest in art began to wane, the two fell to talking. Tom was swimming in bliss. He said, "Do you love rats?"
I probably read Tom Sawyer when I was 10 years old, 1967 or 1968. Re-reading this passage, I can relive exactly what captured my attention. Tom and Becky are alone, they talk, they touch, he’s thrilled at the intimacy, and then he says the wrong thing at the wrong time about old flame Amy Lawrence (boys will be boys). Later passages touch on anger, jealousy, complications from other relationships, reconciliation, and emotional support in life-threatening difficulties; far more explicit writings merely embroider these primal themes.
When Tom and Becky are trapped in a cave, the erotic overtones are darker and more urgent. What will Tom and Becky do in a deadly situation? “Tom kissed her, with a choking sensation in his throat, and made a show of being confident of finding the searchers or an escape from the cave.” Any moonstruck boy can extrapolate the scenario to play the plucky hero earning a kiss. When you’re 10 years old, your mind begins to run riot, but it can only run a certain distance. That distance stretches out as you age. How often as an adult have I acted out Tom’s bravado, vowing “I’ll save you!” in a mad effort to lead a woman from her dark place and win her love?
(The most startling conversation: late in the book, Tom and Huck Finn discuss plans for their gang and a hiding place where, Tom says, “We’ll hold our orgies there.” Huck asks, “What’s orgies?” Tom replies, “I dono. But robbers always have orgies and of course we’ve got to have them, too.”)
Action films had a huge impact at an early age. The rambunctious romantic Tom Sawyer became an adult with new persona, as James Bond, or a zombie destroyer, or a soldier. And a curvaceous all-grown-up Becky Thatcher always brightened the picture. Certain scenes replayed in my mind for decades.
How accurate were my memories? I recently rewatched the movies with adult images that grabbed me. In each case, I remembered how they hit me right where my hormones begged to be hit. First came Dr. No, the earliest Bond movie, with Ursula Andress as Honey Rider rising from the sea in a bikini. This came out in 1962 and I must have seen a re-release years later. Andress looked lovely in her bikini, of course, but what really wowed me was the scene of Bond sucking sea-urchin poison out of Honey Rider’s foot. So that’s what a man does!
Other powerful images appeared in The Blue Max and The Omega Man. Each movie showed men and women in extraordinary circumstances. The action gave me a rationale for watching the movie, and the erotic parts were the icing on the adolescent cake.
The Blue Max involved German fliers in World War I. It starred George Peppard and (again) Ursula Andress as his married lover, Countess Kaeti von Klugermann. In my notes from watching the video, I wrote, “Plunging neckline, only woman in a world of grey men and uniforms, pink nightgown and schnapps, ‘horrible, but quite stimulating,’ teasing him, brazen. He unties gown, she pulls it off, view from armpits up, everything in shadows, silky Bernard Herrmann score. Naked back, towel around waist, then breaks, startling, unexpected, glimpse of edge of breast, kiss. Unrealistic (towel part), incredible back. Tears up prettily.”
The titan among early teen erotica, no question about it, was The Omega Man from 1971, with Charlton Heston as the zombie-battling Dr. Robert Neville, cruising post-apocalypse Los Angeles. It featured Neville’s sizzling interracial love affair with another survivor, tough-talking soul sister Lisa, played by Rosalind Cash. Not only did I see plenty of Lisa, but I heard dialogue with sexual bite. So this is how men and women talk, I thought in the darkness of Mission’s Border Theater. My breathless notes said, “Her back – quick. A little breast on side, ass, back, lots of shadows. ‘You haven’t lost your bedside manner.’ ‘Is that so?’ She’s getting Planned Parenthood supplies, laugh as they get birth control pills, look at each other, then they dress like they’re going to a cocktail party. Trying on clothes, in panties, holding them up, like getting zapped on the head for a 13-year-old!”
Images were one thing; translating curiosity into reality was another. That began to happen, by the by, at Mission Junior High School and its sock hops, along with boy-girl parties. Good-bye piñatas, hello slow-dancing to Chicago’s “Color My World.”
Teen lust and conservative religion mixed together in one head-zapping image. In the summer of 1972, the youth group at the First Baptist Church, which I then attended, welcomed a new member, a girl whose family had just moved to town. Since I once described her as “Venus in jeans,” let’s call her Venus. My very first glance of her struck me dumb: she was 14, with curly red hair, in a halter top. A halter top! This was reality: I could actually see her uncovered skin. Countess von Klugermann stepped off the screen and verily was made flesh. This vision of a Baptist chick in a halter top marked the first time that I moved from reading about Tom Sawyer to wanting to act like Tom Sawyer. I yearned to get to know Venus, in ways the First Baptist would not officially approve.
Venus and I dated on and off through Mission High School and even beyond. We had our dramas in the hallways, and I bumbled along, more rebuffed than encouraged. The halter-top introduction was the most I ever saw of Venus. I constantly said the wrong thing at the wrong time and got “ragged out” for that, as the local phase went. And evangelical Christianity, which I was rejecting, set strict limits on her behavior that she dutifully obeyed.
While Venus and I veered between making out in my mother’s 1968 Chevy Impala and ignoring each other, movie images changed. I remember the visuals, but also the emotional tones. I was learning that eroticism and sexual longings involve vulnerabilities and feelings, not just rescuing damsels from mutants.
I saw Jeremy in 1973, with Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor. Set in New York, it detailed the relationship between music nerd Jeremy and new-girl-at-school Susan. Jeremy sees her and pines for her. The movie perfectly depicted the yearnings and possibilities of high school lust and connection. Rewatching the movie, the dialogue struck me as exactly right for characters I identified with.
The sexual tension mounts and the two find themselves alone on a rainy afternoon at Susan’s apartment. The music swells, Jeremy removes his glasses, he fumbles with her bra strap. Susan takes matters in hand and removes her sweater and unhooks her bra. We see his hands on her back, he kisses her nose, and nature takes its course. What struck me even more, in retrospect, came after the lovemaking, when Susan brushes her hair and takes a bath with what I noted as “post-coital mooniness.”
In a taxi afterward, the conversation captured the after-the-fact uncertainty and anxiety that adults also feel in these moments:
Jeremy: “Is something wrong?”
Susan: “No, I’m just wispy.”
She later tells Jeremy, “I could still feel your lips on mine, I could feel you all over my body, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m a woman, and he loves me.’”
Heady stuff. Beyond the semi-nude scene, the characters’ rampant emotions also connected with me, lonely teens reaching out, yearning for a special someone, ready to kiss and stroke and have something “serious,” as Susan tells her father about her relationship with Jeremy.
As a budding writer, I also delighted in the written word. Once, I was at a paperback display with a friend and I idly flipped through The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, published in 1969. With blind luck, my eye fell on the book’s hottest scene, in which, somewhat like Susan and Jeremy, fallen woman Sarah keeps the action rolling with stuffy male character Charles. As found on page 313 of the hardcover edition, in Fowles’ mock-Victorian prose,
She reached then and took his recalcitrant hand and led it under the robe to her bare breast. He felt the stiff point of flesh in the center of his palm. Her hand drew his head to hers and they kissed as his hand, now recalling forbidden female flesh, silken and swollen contours, a poem forgotten, sized and approved the breast then slid deeper and lower inside her robe to the incurve of her waist, she was naked, and her mouth tasted faintly of onions.
I nudged my friend and said, “Hey, look at this.” I showed him the steamy passage.
“Wallach!” he exclaimed.
I would not read the full passage or the whole book for over 30 years. Only in 2005 or so did I realize that, when it comes to “forbidden female flesh,” we guys sometimes react in unintended ways. While Tom Sawyer and Jeremy managed their erotic interludes well, poor Charles, well … I winced at his reaction: “He was racked by an intolerable spasm. Twisting sideways, he began to vomit into the pillow beside her shocked, flungback head.”
By 1975 my movie viewing had advanced to seeing the erotic spoof Flesh Gordon with friends. The plot involved the evil Emperor Wang the Perverted of the planet Porno and his diabolical “sex ray.” I can’t remember any sex scenes, but bits of the script stayed with me, as in the song lyric about Emperor Wang, “Without him the planet Porno would be oh so forlorno.” "Paradise Lost" it’s not, but the line scans well and has a clever ring to it – why else would I remember it almost 35 years later?
One last film stands out, at the end of an arc of my growing awareness of the often messy flip side of sexuality. I saw Shampoo, starring Warren Beatty as horndog hairdresser George, with Julie Christie as Jackie and Goldie Hawn as Jill, two of his objects of lust, when it debuted in 1975. Something about the movie haunted me. I gazed on Julie Christie’s slinky, revealing gowns and saw Goldie Hawn in panties and a baby-doll nightgown, and the movie sizzles with raunchy talk, but the shock came elsewhere. I couldn’t identify it. Upon another viewing at the age of 51, I got it. Shampoo trembles with female emotions, as George beguiles and then betrays one woman after another. Jackie and Jill’s raw feelings of wanting and hurting – they scream off the screen.
The emotional climax comes when Jill stumbles upon George and Jackie having sex on a kitchen floor. Seeing them through a window, an enraged Jill throws a chair through the window, screams “You bastard!” and runs past them, while Jackie sits disconsolately on the floor. Jill’s pain is painful to watch, as is her line to George: “I’ll know you’re incapable of love and that will help me.”
Frantic George veers back to Jackie and pleads, as men through the ages have pleaded, “I’m a fuck-up but I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy, I swear to God I will.”
Jackie falls to her knees, distraught. “It’s too late,” she says.
The women were sexy and the language was risqué, but what I truly remember about Shampoo is, “you bastard” and “it’s too late.” Tom and Becky grew into Jeremy and Susan and crashed into George and Jill and Jackie.
Nothing like Jeremy and Susan’s rainy day interlude ever happened with that Baptist chick in a halter top. She made sure of that. All these images remained cerebral, untested theories. My own sentimental education remained maddeningly pure. Had the opportunity to act on impulses arisen, I don’t know how I would have reacted.
Actually, I do know.
First, some background. My woefully incompatible parents split before I was three years old and my father eventually moved to New York. After seeing him one weekend in 10 years, my brother and I finally visited him in 1972 for a week, then for three weeks in 1974. A self-employed engineer and dreamer who loathed our mother and everything connected to Texas, Dad crammed his weltanschauung (German for “world view;” it sounds like the right word here) down our throats in a relentless, exhausting campaign to polish his untutored “cowboys” into Brooks Brothers-clad, opera-appreciating Upper East Side gentlemen. He finally had his chance to exert control and exert he did. He expounded endlessly on our pathetic educational, social, cultural, and spiritual state.
In August 1974 Dad and his wife (he remarried in 1962) took us to Miami Beach, where his parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary. He decided that was the perfect moment for a big sex talk in the lobby of the Montmartre Hotel. We sat in the lobby; Cooper and I listened, he rambled. His tour of sexuality’s far horizons touched on brothels, nudist camps, STDs, masturbation, the Oedipal complex, his fond memories of “a totally uninhibited girl in San Antonio,” the value of backseat quickies, and much more. My ears perked up when he advised us “to have a sexual encounter with an older woman to teach us all about what women like.”
(I recounted this sit-down in my journal and after several hundred words wrote, “This may be an incredibly understated notice, but Nixon resigned yesterday.”)
I returned to New York alone in the summer of 1975 for college interviews and to take short story and photography classes at the New School. Cooper had had more than enough of our father’s “you uncultured Texas hicks” attitude and stayed in Mission. But the bright lights of the city called, so, while wary of my father’s bullying, I headed to New York and hoped for the best.
Dad decided to make his Montmartre theories into my Manhattan reality. In his typical manner, he steered me to the toys and games section of Bloomingdale’s to announce his big plan: he had arranged for me to spend the night with the 35-year-old “physical therapist” of an antiques dealer pal of his. He wanted to extend his control into the most intimate, sensitive parts of my life.
I wrote, “I was floored. Pow. All my fantasies … are mine – once – for the asking. Frankly, I’ve had little else on my mind. I can do IT.”
The offer tempted me but I quickly declined. Whatever the appeal of fantasies made flesh, I absolutely would not allow my father to be my pimp. I refused to give him any say in this matter. His wife told me the woman was very nice, but I dug in my Texas boot heels and would not reconsider. To this day I have no doubts about the rightness of my decision – I was 17 and horny, but I also had my self-respect and emotional independence to consider. I would rather keep my virginity than lose my sense of self to my father’s overbearing demand to shape my life according to his values. For this and other reasons, the summer was a disaster.
So my grand chance to act on impulses came and went, unconsummated. The brush with erotic reality left me exhausted and bored with sexy imagery when I returned to Texas. In August 1975, while checking out the University of Texas at Austin, I saw Last Tango in Paris. It did nothing for me; I don’t remember a single moment of it and have no interest in seeing it again.
My relationship with Venus became ever more exasperating for both of us. We saw, yes, Shampoo, at El Centro Mall in McAllen and I wrote that “we were thoroughly mad at each other, just like the good old days.” I had already seen the movie in New York, so I knew what was coming. We held hands until the scene when Goldie Hawn’s Jill throws the chair through the window. As I reported, I turned to Iona and whispered, “’There she goes again, always over-reacting!’ Venus really got hot at that. And withdrew her hand for the rest of the flick.”
It had come to this: The Baptist chick in the halter top watched George, Jill and Jackie with me, and I left the theater feeling just like George in Shampoo’s last scene: alone in the world.
And the rest of the story? Life happened, in all its zig-zagging chaos and delight. Boyhood ended, capricious adulthood began. I buried one parent and don’t talk to the other. I cycled through marriage, fatherhood, and divorce. In one madcap 16-month span I chased romance to Canada, Brazil, and Mexico. I’ve rejected and been rejected, driven people crazy and gone crazy in return, seen dark places and light. I fulfilled a promise I made to a friend – “I’m going to get the hell out of Texas” – and now I write about the place constantly. Okay, consistency has never been my strong point.
I carry an updated mental list of post-teenager sexy images. The older I get, the more I like not so much specific scenes in movies or books, but rather a suggestive mood, an appeal to my imagination. The way I describe it, the women on MTV are raunchy, the women on Country Music Television are saucy. I like saucy. And looking back, I like materials that stir a memory of something that happened – or something that never happened, but I wish it had.
Here’s a list of my adult favorites:
Black Book – Paul Verhoeven’s slamming look at the Dutch resistance in World War II features a fearless Jewish babe, evil (and not-so-evil!) Nazis, double-crosses and bloody revenge. I returned to my action film roots, thanks to a movie where the roots got dyed (watch it and you’ll understand). Actresses Carice van Houten and Halina Reijn keep the screen steaming when it's not flowing with slaughter.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Lena Olin captivated me and gave new meaning to how a woman wears a hat.
Turn Left at the End of the World – Israeli movie about new immigrants in 1968. It’s got everything, and then some.
Before Sunset – with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, this sequel to Before Sunrise is the perfect movie about regret and reconnection.
The novels of Anita Shreve – I like Shreve’s story telling, in Light on Snow and The Pilot’s Wife. Her books often involve tormented baby boomers enjoying an illicit shtup in tasteful New England bed-and-breakfasts.
Killing Che by Chuck Pfarrar – Hard-as-nails historical spy novel set in Bolivia in 1967 with zesty gringo-Latina interactions. Que viva amor!
Latin American soap operas – I especially like the musical opening sequences that suggest the personalities of the characters. All-time favorite: Gitanas, with dancing gypsy girls. Talk about saucy.
“Encontros e Despedides (Arrivals and Departures)” – a song by the Brazilian singer Maria Rita that’s the soundtrack of my 2004 trip to Brazil. It always conjures memories of that time and beyond.
“Mr. Brightside” – by the Killers, especially the line, “It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this?” I’ve asked myself that many times.
Finally, to give the devil his due, as an adult I found that some of my father’s ideas weren’t half-bad after all. I just had to experience them in my own sweet time, even if I had to wait 30 or so years for the opportunity. Which? My lips are sealed. Okay, here’s a hint: