Sunday, November 14, 2010


H.C. Klingman

Before my face began breaking out I was just a kid, putting on whatever clothes Mom set out for me in the morning. After a breakfast of cocoa and pastry, feeling slightly nauseous, eyes not entirely clear of sleep, I stumbled along to PS 82 in my sneakers, lunch and books slung over my shoulder. Sometimes I smuggled my peashooter or a comic book to class. I had no master plan. Life was mostly random, all about me.
There was a general awareness of having to be on time, but there was sightseeing along the way. At Sturm’s Candy Shop I ogled sweets that I had no pennies for. There was a pond en-route, where you could cut a willow switch to snap at cats or girls legs to make them jump. You could make a whistle from a willow branch.
Sometimes you could catch a small frog there, and take it to class, but mostly they died in the pocket of your jacket. Throwing stones or blowing dandelion parachutes were other diversions. In the autumn we picked cattails that you could soak in gasoline to make torches. I stuffed my pockets full of horse chestnuts.
I barely paid attention in class, absent-mindedly doing whatever the teacher asked, awaiting the school bell to release me to the playground. The swings and teeter-totters were for kids from the lower grades. Eighth graders like me played ball games.
Sometimes I walked home with other boys who told me of weird goings on at home, secrets about their sisters, or what they ate for dinner. Everybody was different. One guy’s mother visited a medium, another went to daily Mass.
There were music lessons, but I was thinking about outside games as I read notes and practiced finger exercises. It seems wherever I was or whatever I was doing, I always wanted to be somewhere else.
I didn’t even have peach fuzz on my cheeks in the 8th grade. I was only twelve. Some of the other boys were already shaving; you could see how hairy they were in the showers after gym. But my face was still unblemished, and I was invited to a round of graduation parties. The girls at those parties were a little more advanced than me, and when they suggested playing “post office,” I opted out. No smooching for me.
Those days of innocence ended in high school. Hormones raged, girls suddenly seemed different, and a plague of pimples appeared out of nowhere, speckling my face. My voice became a cracked yodel and strange pains were felt in armpits and groin. “Growing pains” said Mom. There was adolescent insecurity. Only later did I learn that puberty presaged biological destiny, programmed into us by evolution.
Nature’s timing couldn’t be worse. Just about the time you cultivate interest in the world, you become disfigured with all kinds of skin eruptions. People look away. You suffer the taunts of your little brother, and your parents scold you for picking at your face. Plucking and squeezing become spasmodic. You feel unclean, and no amount of scrubbing or salves brings relief. When company comes you want to hide.
It seems to go on for ages, but eventually skin clears and the shame lifts. Facial hair flourishes and the voice stabilizes. Secondary sex characteristics announce your new role. You become a bold performer in early fertility rituals where girls are to be pleased, no longer teased. A threshold is reached as a freshfaced teenager emerges from his cocoon searching for identity, confronted by gender questions. He becomes aware of uncertainties involved in the mating process. Randomness gives way to purpose. Choices have to be made.
That is when the real problems begin.