Monday, December 20, 2010

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Jim (revisited)

The TV was on, and the air was murky, weighted with the smell of coffee, beer, and cigarettes. This was the summer of 95, and Jim’s grandmother had made us lunch: tuna fish sandwiches on toasted bread, cut into triangles. Jim ate, she spoke, and I focused on her coffee. In Provo, Utah, coffee is immoral. People don’t have gritty coffee-stained smiles, and speak with foul coffee-laden breath like Jim’s grandmother did. And people certainly don’t drink coffee in front of two 13-year-old boys. But that’s what made Jim’s home exciting. For a Mormon kid, it held a strange wonder.

Jim’s grandmother was slender and agile with a curly dome of gray hair. She wore a spaghetti strap top and Daisy Dukes. When she spoke, she drew out her O’s and her A’s. Most of the time, she didn’t talk, and this was the most I can remember her speaking.

“I was 16. Your grandfather was 25,” she said. “One date turned into a few. Then we found out I was carrying your mother.” Shrugging her shoulders, she pulled the spoon from her mug. “He’s never treated me much like a lady,” she said. “He comes and goes, hollering this and that. He looks at other girls.” She stopped for a moment, sipped, her eyes squinting in the steam. Sitting up straight, hand still holding the mug, she said, “Once you find a girl, treat her like a lady.” She emphasized the word like it carried its own weight, but at the time we had no idea what it meant.

Jim was tall, heavy, and barrel chested, with jagged teeth and a curly blond mullet. He carried a gut that was hard and round, and could take a punch. Born in Nebraska, Jim moved to Utah three years after his mother’s death. His father, overwhelmed by raising a young boy alone, shipped Jim to his grandparents’ home in Provo. He was 11 at the time.

Two LDS chapels were in view of Jim’s home, but he was not Mormon. Morning, night, and occasional prayers meant nothing to him. He’d never borne testimony of the Lord, and his family didn’t have Monday night scripture study. Most of the cul-de-sac viewed Jim as a bad influence because he was not Mormon. Outside of myself, he had few friends. Walking to church, I would pass Jim’s home. Once, from a distance, I stopped to watch him throw a football in his front yard and then dive to catch it. I could tell by the way he lingered after the catch, and then drifted his eyes across the street, that he longed for someone to be at the other end of the pass.

I also lived with my grandmother, and it was on this common ground that Jim and I found friendship. Even though I was not into sports, Nintendo, or cars, three things Jim favored, we still managed to spend hours discussing how long elderly people spent in the tub, and how much we hated the Lawrence Welk Show.

I spent weekday afternoons and Saturdays at Jim’s home. Jim’s grandfather often leaned his elbows on the deck and casually dropped F-bombs on Jim. They argued regularly. Generally, Jim avoided him, clinging closer to his grandmother’s soft-spoken disposition. For decades, Jim’s grandfather had resided in Utah. Despite multiple meetings with Mormon missionaries, he held to what some called “his worldly ways.” Lean and clean-shaven, with a dry face and veins crisscrossing his forearms, Jim’s grandfather must have been in his mid-sixties. The man was brutish, and perverted, with a strong mouth. He referred to the garden hose as a “donkey dick” and told jokes about “fat girls riding mopeds.” He worked Monday- Saturday fixing VCR’s and TV’s. Sundays he hunched beneath the hood of an old Mustang, ashtray to his left and a beer in his right hand, trumpeting obscenities after any clanking metal. Once, he told Jim that if he were more like his mother, he wouldn’t be such a dipshit. Jim’s lips trembled, and so did his hands as they tugged at the hem of his shorts. He then asked me to go home.

Jim had a lot working against him when it came to girls. He smelled of cigarettes and coffee, and was awkwardly large with brick shaped hands. Like his grandmother, he didn’t talk much, and he definitely didn’t talk to girls. Due to his non-Mormonism he was viewed as scary and strange, and not in the “dangerous” way some girls find sexy.

I was the opposite in shape and temperament, short and stocky, with stumpy feet, and a soft pudgy gut. I did the talking for both of us, laughing at my own jokes with a Beavis-like chuckle deep in my throat. I was not allowed to date until I turned 16. But even then “going steady” with a girl was almost a sin until after I turned 19, went on a two-year Mormon mission, and returned home. Sometimes Mormon kids at Dixon Middle School would date “in secret,” restricting their relationship to lunch periods and secret meetings at parks. But these were rare and usually ended with overzealous parents transferring their daughter to another school.

From behind lockers and through school bus windows, Jim and I examined girls. We discussed the way their breasts pushed forward, and the arc of their hips. Sometimes a girl might sit close enough for Jim and me to smell cherry lip-gloss, and in these moments, I would nudge Jim and whisper, “Go for it.” But he never did, and neither did I when our roles were reversed. All we ever did was look.

The first time Jim and I talked about sex was on a bus ride home. Jim educated me on foreplay and sexual positions. While rubbing his hand through the coarse hair of his upper knee, Jim spoke of his longing to explore a woman’s body. He was only slightly familiar with the parts of a woman, but spoke with authority, saying “vagina” and “boobs” instead of bathing-suit-area. The conversation was soft-spoken, and sinful, and I found it librating. Leaning in, Jim softly asked if I’d ever seen porn, and I felt like I’d awakened in a strange place. According to everything I knew (which wasn’t much), pornography was dangerous. “You mean naked girls?” I said. Jim nodded.

Giggling, awkwardly, I told Jim he was “dirty.” He stopped talking, and in the silence he seemed to ask: what do you mean I’m dirty?

I don’t think anyone had ever called him that before. Jim was a strange creature free from sexual morality, owner of an independence I didn’t know existed. Mormonism had given me a strong sense of what it meant to feel dirty. Did Jim not know the discomfort of shame? Had he not experienced wanting sex, but withholding the thought because lust leads to sexual sin?
How exciting would it have been to entertain lust without question or remorse? Or to cast aside prudence and be shameless? Before that moment, a life so carefree was unthinkable, but once it had been presented, I longed for it.

Jim told me he’d always wanted to see porno, and that he disagreed with the Mormon Church’s standing on it. “They’re the ones that make it illegal in Utah,” he said. “If they don’t like naked girls, then they just shouldn’t look at them.” This statement sounded more like his grandfather’s words than his.

A few months after Jim and I talked about sex, we became preoccupied with underwear models. This was the closest we could get to the opposite sex. We hid in Jim’s basement between the water heater and the deep freezer. There was no carpet, just cold cement that left bruises on our knees. Mounted along the west wall were aluminum shelves that held cardboard boxes, fruit preserves in mason jars, and carpet samples. Old lawn furniture was tucked in corners, along with Christmas decorations, and small electronics. The air tasted dusty and the upstairs floorboards creaked with Jim’s grandfather’s heavy steps.

During the week, we scrambled through newspapers, searching for JCPenney or Shopko ads, eager for sales on Fruit of the Loom thong panties or Hanes sports bras. Jim and I took apart the leaflets and spread them on the cement. Ink darkened Jim’s fingertips as he squinted to see the outline of a nipple or the curl of a stray pubic hair. We were fourteen and addicted to images of women in full-butt, high-cut, cotton panties.

I’d seen underwear ads in the Sears Catalog and the newspaper. It felt naughty looking at them, but I convinced myself that there was comfort in their familiarity. We talked about how amazing it would be to remove the underwear from the models and see what was hidden beneath the thin cotton. But it was a fantasy, a crazy dream akin to finding buried treasure.

One day, as Jim and I sat in the basement, he asked if I’d ever seen a “Bunny Book.” I shook my head. He lifted a Playboy from his backpack with the same courtesy and respect one might reserve for a first date. He then cupped it in both hands like it were a child on its back learning to float. The magazine had a smooth glossy cover, was thick and heavy, with pages and pages of naked women. Perspiration rolled down my brow and I wiped the moisture before it fell. Were live naked women about to spring seductively from the pages? Temptation overwhelmed my conscience and I opened the magazine.