This is what my parents told me about sex: nothing. Not one word. Ever.
My brother Roger was so perturbed by my parents’ silence about sex that one day when he was home from medical school he went into our youngest brother’s bedroom, closed the door, and explained it to Tim in dispassionate, clinical detail.
When he was done, he mentioned to my brother Mike what he’d done. Mike, who is closer to Tim’s age, waited till Roger left, and then he too went into Tim’s bedroom and closed the door behind him. He’d heard, Mike said, that Roger and Tim had had a little talk, and he just thought he’d come in and see if Tim had any questions.
“You understood everything Roger told you?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Any time you have any questions, just come to me and I’ll do my best to answer them. You sure you don’t have any questions?”
“Uh, maybe I do have a question.”
“What’s a vagina?”
Good question, Tim! One I myself had long pondered. And I learned about sex in an even weirder way than you did.
In seventh grade at Del Vallejo Junior High in San Bernardino, California, two boys and I regularly slipped away from P. E. In red gym shorts, white tee shirts, and sock-less Keds, we dawdled around the edges of the playing field, trying to stay out of the coach’s line of vision as we talked, argued about our favorite TV shows, and told jokes.
One morning we edged along the outside of a fence along a concrete drainage culvert, curled our fingers into the fence’s chain-links, our sole source of support as we leaned back, watching the exertions of our classmates. While we hung there, the hard California sun rebounding off the dry field and the concrete, one of our trio, a chubby kid with a blond crew cut whose name I’ve forgotten, asked us if we’d heard about the dog that was walking along the railroad track when the train roared by and cut off his tail.
Desperately searching for his tail, the dog sniffed and sniffed along the track, so engrossed he didn’t hear another train coming from the opposite direction. The train blasted over him, cut off his head, and killed him.
“And what’s the moral of this story?” the crew-cut boy asked.
“Beats me,” I said.
“Never lose your head over a piece of tail.”
The two of them laughed, hanging over the culvert by their fingers, while I pulled myself up to the fence, uncomprehending, stupid, left out. I chewed it over, but got nowhere. The dog had lost its head while worried about its tail. Was the point of the joke that we shouldn’t let small losses lead to greater ones? The cute moralism didn’t jibe with the hilarity of my friends.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
They explained to me that “tail” had a meaning other than the one I already knew. Then they explained their explanation.
Jesus, did they think I was so stupid I’d believe something like that?
The year before, my parents, after much whispered debate, had signed a consent form permitting me to watch a sex-education filmstrip with the rest of the boys in my sixth-grade class at Del Rosa Elementary. The decision had been a close one, and I was exultant that I didn’t have to scuttle out of the room and sit outside the door with the unfortunate dork whose parents had elevated him to iconic dorkdom.
The film itself was so discreet that, though I understood that seed left the boy, entered the girl, and fertilized one of her eggs, I was unclear how the transfer took place. Extrapolating from the shapeless representations of the implicated organs, I developed a vague idea that the boy shoved sperm from his mouth into the girl’s mouth with his tongue, and it then somehow slid downhill to her fallopian tubes. I was puzzled, too, that women, like chickens, carried around inside them a clutch of eggs, and that the eggs could still be eggs though they were not—I asked this—covered with a hard brown shell or suitable for frying. Not that they couldn’t be fried, they just weren’t.
I knew my junior-high friends were goofing with me now because I’d read Ask Ann Landers and Dear Abby. For years, I’d pondered letters from pregnant girls who claimed they did not understand how they’d come to that delicate situation. My pre-adolescent heart went out to them. I could easily imagine how an impassioned kiss might lead to an accidental transfer of sperm. But as I learned more, I began to wonder. If a girl had assumed a posture inelegant enough to facilitate a boy’s inserting his barely mentionable into her truly unmentionable, she could hardly assert she did not know how she’d been fertilized.
Nope, I wasn’t buying it. My friends were always feeding me some line, but I wasn’t falling for this one. As I pointed out triumphantly, how could they call it “tail” when it was in the front? They had no answer for that one.
As we walked back to take showers and then headed to class, the discussion nagged at me. The curly-headed boy had asked in exasperation if I hadn’t ever seen two dogs screwing, the boy dog on top, trying to stab his penis into the girl dog. I had, and I’d thought it was a peculiar way to wrestle. Now I was troubled to find myself wondering if humans might possibly make love—and babies—the same way that dogs might possibly make puppies. This new and startling understanding of procreation meshed so neatly with other stray bits of information that I couldn’t brush it aside.
The crew-cut kid’s joke was what tipped the balance. He was obviously repeating a joke he’d heard, not one invented just to fool me. But my still-immature body did not corroborate either the scientific information on the half-remembered film strip or the version hooted at me by my friends.
Before the end of the week, I sidled up to my mother as she shredded cabbage and carrots for coleslaw, and blurted out my question. I had composed and re-composed it to be sensitive to the feelings of a woman who might resent the insinuation she was an egg-bearing mammal who had squeezed three boys out of the darkness of her tinkle place nine months after having copulated like a wild dog.
“Do we have babies the same way dogs do?”
“No,” my mother said. “Not exactly.” Long pause. “Don’t you have homework to do?”
“No ma’am. Done done it.”
“All of it? Even your math?”
“Then work on next week’s homework.”
The following afternoon when I returned from school there were two library books on the end of my bed. One, by a Jesuit, was an introduction to sex that limited itself to instructions about remaining pure, respecting women, saving myself for marriage, and restricting intercourse to the making of babies—many, many babies. At twelve, without the benefit of puberty to provide a contrary perspective, I found Father O’Whosit’s arguments compelling. He also railed against the degeneracy of young men touching and pulling on themselves where they shouldn’t. I was curious.
Since I had never handled my penis except to pee, I stood over the toilet and touched. Nothing. Pulled. Nothing. Yanked. Ouch. Five or six ouches were all it took to make me stop. I could see why the priest called it self-abuse, though given the pain, it was difficult to imagine the attraction. Father O’Whatsis made self-abuse sound like a sort of exquisitely filthy urination, but the dark secret of how the illuminati unleash the sinister magic was yet closed to me.
The other book lying on my bed that afternoon was a college-level textbook about human reproduction. Though I studied it closely, the knowledge that women possess ovaries, fallopian tubes, and a cervix did nothing to enlighten me about my original question: whether they screwed like dogs. And I wondered whether at some point I’d be expected to accommodate one of them in this process, like a dog myself. Woof.
I was as naïve as the young wife who refuses to have doggy-style sex with her husband, no matter how he asks. None of her friends do it. It’s not something a lady should do. It’s undignified. But finally, one day, worn down by his begging and pleading, threatening and groveling, she relents. But first he has to promise her one thing.
“Sure, sure. What is it you want me to promise?”
“No matter how excited you are, no matter how out of control you get when we are stuck together, promise not to drag me past the beauty salon where my friends can see us.”
She was worried he was just another dog who’d lose his head over a piece of tail.
All in all, I received a profound education in Eros and Thanatos from the little fictional dog that died by the railroad track. Tail can kill you, the joke says. As I grew into a normal obsession with girls, the joke, or at least its punch line, haunted me, though I knew little of sex beyond the primal impulse and the idea that fallopian tubes were involved. Implicit in the joke is the understanding, true enough, that love and lust are different, though occasionally overlapping, desires, and that lust is dangerous.
An urge that powerful terrified me. When I at last experienced sex, would logic, decency, and life itself be swept away by uncontrollable passion? Would I go crazy? Would I lose my head over a piece of tail?
I’d received another lesson in sex education in seventh grade, but unfortunately it took place before I’d heard about the headless dog, so I didn’t have a firm educational foundation on which to build. But still, I learned something. When the social studies teacher left the room, I leaned into the aisle and listened to a girl tell a joke to her friends. Though she usually ignored me, this time she didn’t shut me out. With jokes, even the morbidly uncool were welcomed. I was so grateful to be allowed into the audience that I remember to this moment the sunlight pouring through the high, transom-level windows near the ceiling and illuminating the girl’s thin face, which suddenly seemed older, almost mature, and slyly ingratiating. She, who had always been haughty, was now bending forward, eager for us to hear her joke.
A little boy comes home from the circus, crying. The fortune teller at the circus had stared into her crystal ball and sadly informed the boy his father would die before midnight the next day.
“Don’t worry about what some stupid gypsy tells you in exchange for a quarter,” the father says, and laughs. The mother laughs, too.
The father tries to put the prophecy out of his mind, but all the next day at work he worries about it. Maybe the old gypsy knows something he doesn’t, so he drives home from work early to avoid traffic and eats supper chewing each bite thoroughly so he won’t choke. The later it gets, the more nervous he becomes, so he goes to bed at eight o’ clock, figuring he’ll be safe there. As the night wears on and the clock on the mantel strikes nine, ten, eleven, eleven-thirty, quarter of twelve, he grows more and more frantic. Finally as the clock begins striking midnight, he races downstairs in a panic, throws open the door, bolts across the lawn, and trips over the dead mailman.
The other students rocked in their seats with laughter, and I laughed too, but hesitantly, working my way through the joke. The dead mailman was the boy’s biological father, sure, but why was that funny? Since I didn’t understand sex, I couldn’t understand the shock of sexual betrayal. I understood the father’s fatherhood, in the biological sense, was a delusion—but the psychological power of the reversal eluded me. Not sure why to laugh at, I tried to locate something funny in the unexplored future of the characters. How would the husband and wife explain to the police and neighbors the dead mailman lurking around their house at midnight? How would the man and wife get along now that her unfaithfulness had been mystically revealed? In my frantic and inadequate attempt to find the source of humor in the joke, I grasped for the first time that sexual infidelity was not something that happened only in the Bible, with David and Bathsheba. I was so scrupulously churched and vigilantly sheltered that I had not understood adultery could happen in suburban homes like mine, stucco or clapboard boxes to which uniformed government employees delivered the mail and maybe a little special-delivery loving too.
As the other students laughed, all these half-formed notions pinballed around my head, and the girl who’d told the joke noticed my half-hearted laughter. “Don’t you get it?” she asked, with theatrical incredulity. “The mailman was the kid’s real father!”
“Yeah, I get it,” I said, lying. I was being educated about sex by unknowing teachers unaware of what they were teaching. I was being taught, through jokes, the terrors and ecstasies of the tribe, like the explorer I also heard about at this age. One day, as he was staring into the sky, an enormous bird let loose an enormous load on his head. Gagging, he started to scrape it off, but the guide, beaming with excitement, ran up and told him to stop. The Foo Bird is magical. To be crapped on by the Foo Bird means wealth, fame, knowledge and a lifetime of good luck. But the befouled explorer dumps his canteen over his head, scrubs off the Foo Bird excrement, and falls over dead.
The next day, after the funeral, the expedition continues and again the fabulous Foo Bird flies overhead and covers a second explorer from head to foot. Again the guide runs up, smiling with pleasure, and tells the explorer he is lucky to be singled out for fame, wealth, and knowledge by the divine Foo Bird.
“Don’t give me that primitive nonsense!” says the explorer. “Yesterday was just a coincidence.” He scrapes it out of his hair with his fingernails, flicks it to the ground, and instantly keels over.
After yet another funeral, the third and only remaining explorer sets off into the jungle, and before he takes three steps into the wilderness, the Foo Bird soars overhead and unleashes a third direct hit. This explorer, having learned by the deaths of his colleagues, leaves the feces untouched on his head and continues with his expedition. He discovers species of animals unknown to science, unearths hitherto unknown civilizations, discovers hidden treasure, and returns home as the richest and most famous explorer in history, though he is widely considered eccentric because he never bathes. The moral of this story? If the Foo shits, wear it.
That’s how I felt about the knowledge about sex that the jokes had dumped. Some people might find it dirty, but I thought it was magic.
This essay is adapted from The Joker: A Memoir, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.