“Craig Harvey jacks off,” Paul told me last night. “I think he’s turning Japanese, I think he’s turning Japanese, I really think so,” he sang. Everybody knows that song is about jacking off.
Craig is popular, cute, shortish with longish sun-streaked hair and freckles, kind of like a junior Doug Jr.
I know Paul lies, but he’s always been a wised-up kid, a few steps ahead of everybody else when it comes to sex. In fifth grade I was still earnestly chastising him for using the word fuck. Back then he said he had fucked his girl cousin in Nebraska. A lie. He also said he fucked his friend Theo. Another lie. But I want to believe Craig Harvey jacks off.
We’re in Paul’s room, playing Atari, Mille Bornes, and Dungeons & Dragons all night enclosed in fake-wood paneling. My character is Roland, Pure Good, and Paul’s is Cedric, Chaotic Evil. Paul made Cedric that way to force me to spend the night in the room with evil weekend after weekend. After a while, D&D for two gets old. You can only battle so many monsters and acquire so much power with only one rival traveler on your imaginary roads.
“Nicole Young told me about Craig. He told her he uses Vaseline.”
“To make it slippery. I’ll show you.” Paul pounced off the bed toward his little private bathroom and produced a jar of Vaseline. “We’ll lie on the floor where we can’t see each other. We’ll have a contest. See who finishes first.”
We spread our bodies out in straight lines, rigid like canoes docked at the edge of a lake. I took my chunk of Vaseline and slid it around my penis.
“Ready, go,” Paul said. Then, “Stop for a second. What percent hard would you say you are? I’m 90.”
“Eighty-nine?” I said, thinking I should sound less excited than Paul. Nonetheless, the game was a draw. We splurted at about the same time and there was no referee to weigh in.
The next week at school, Eric Seavey and I are sitting under the monkey bars, our lunches eaten. Eric, a Mormon kid, is practically albino and was preppy before The Official Preppy Handbook came out six months ago and transformed the fashion habits of the entire white population of the school. But he’s not cool preppy. His oxfords are gray pinstripe and his sweaters from the Men and Boys store, with initials where alligators should be. Neither of us has friends, so we’ve made an alliance, hanging out together at lunch to create the illusion of companionship. Eric is known for his intelligence, and he appreciates the fact that I can keep up with his conversation. I appreciate that he appreciates this. He overlooks my attempt to ape his upper-middle-classness. For some reason, he is willing to hang out with me despite the fact that I’m a magnet for crazed bullies.
“What do you think of ‘Crocodile Rock’ so far?” he asks. We’re both in People Movers, the “advanced” chorus, the one you have to audition for.
“It’s pretty good. I don’t get the choreography.”
“Fagaw,” we hear. Steve Cunningham, the latest crazed bully. Our conversation has been a hiding place, a bad one. “Fagaw, there you are. What the fuck? Yo, Eric, why do you hang out with this fag?” He’s wearing black cords and a black Blue Oyster Cult T-shirt. The stoners are the only white kids who resist the Preppy Revolution.
Steve grabs me by the collar and pulls me to my feet and then punches me in the stomach, hard. “Heh-heh-heh,” he laughs, just like a cartoon villain. “Why don’t you do some pull-ups? I saw you in PE. You can’t even do one. I’ll teach you.” Another punch.
I’m paralyzed, the wind knocked out of me. He raises my arms and molds my hands to the metal bars. “Pull, Fagaw, pull.” I won’t do it. Another punch.
“Pull! Fuckin’ pull!” No. Punch. He pushes me, and I swing. I can feel the blisters forming on my palms. “Swing like a monkey, faggot. Swing.” I’m swimming in nausea.
My blistery hands give out. I’m a breathless crumble in the sand. “Faggot monkey.” He grins and walks off toward the empty football field.
School used to be a relief. Not anymore—and not just because of Steve. The whole school seems to have acquired faggot radar. I feel like a pinball, banging around, dodging punches, drowning in ding-dong jeers.
My mom’s late picking me up. I’m waiting for the VW Bug on the lawn in front of school, really hoping Steve’s not around. The crowd is dwindling. Jeff Herbert is one of the few who remain. He’s hanging out in a car with his sister Julie and her friend, who are 15 and go to San Pasqual High.
Queen is blasting from inside the car, “Don’t Try Suicide.” The girls are snapping along with Freddie Mercury. Don’t do that. You got a good thing goin’. The song is two years old, the B-side to “Another One Bites the Dust,” which hit number 1 on Billboard in 1980, but for some reason everybody at school is into it right now. Julie’s friend, blond and feathered like her, is singing out loud, Don’t try suicide. Nobody’s worth it. Don’t try suicide. Nobody cares. She’s more heavy metal wail than Mercury’s rockabilly groove. So you think it’s the easy way out. Think you’re gonna slash your wrists this time. Baby when you do it, all you do is get on my tits. She sings “tits” at twice the volume, straight at Jeff. You need help, you need help, you need help, she continues. As soon as the song ends, Julie takes the tape out and throws it to Jeff like a football. He runs for a touchdown, slow enough to let the friend tackle him. As they roll on the grass, in this way that makes me think maybe they’re not just friends, a new sound comes out of the car. It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard. I love it immediately. The singer sounds British, and he sings in this way that is so relaxed he’s almost slurring: Save it for later, don’t run away, run away, you’re lettin’ me down. It’s the song, the one Jeff talked about in People Movers. “Save It for Later.” The English Beat. Ska. About to hit. Hard.
The Bug’s engine sucks up the sound like a vacuum. You’d think I would be glad to have only a small audience when my mom and Cheech finally show up, 25 minutes late. But Cheech is in the car, smoking. Her smoke rings sharpen my anger before I even notice it’s a joint in her hand. God, I say to myself, aaauuuggghhh, not for a moment imagining Jeff might think this is cool. As we pull off the curb, I see Julie’s friend raise her pinched fingers to her lips and pantomime sucking a joint. Then, I swear, I think I see her and Jeff kiss, with tongues, in a whir behind us.
“That’s illegal,” I say to Cheech.
“No fuckin’ way?” she replies, as though I have taught her a valuable lesson, and we spurt off toward home.
Three weeks later, at noon on a Saturday, Paul and I are in his room, playing D&D with the radio on in the background, tuned to 91X, the hard-rock station. Robert Plant is whimpering about the price of a stairway when, abruptly, the needle scratches right through his falsetto. Then silence.
“They screwed up,” Paul says, savoring their fallibility.
Then a male whisper, “Sex,” over the sound of synthesized drums, a cynical mechanized melody, and the sound of a breathy, orgasmic woman singing over the man: Feel the fire, feel my love inside you, it’s so right. There’s the sound and the smell of love in my mind. “What the?” Paul asks. I have no answer.
We can’t do anything but listen and hope. I’m a toy, come and play with me, say the word now. Wrap your legs around mine and ride me tonight. We stare at each other, at the speakers, back at each other. I’m a man. I’m a goddess. I’m a man. Well, I’m a virgin. We don’t list percents, but it’s safe to assume we’re each at least 40.
The song fades, and a male DJ with a British accent says, “That was Berlin, ‘Sex (I’m A ...),’ and you’re listening to the new 91X.” We have just witnessed the birth of San Diego’s first new-wave station. The weekend is a revelation. We hear the English Beat—and not just “Save It for Later,” but also “I Confess,” “Tears of a Clown,” and “Mirror in the Bathroom.” We’re introduced to Modern English, Adam and the Ants, Elvis Costello, Japan, Bauhaus, Blancmange, Joy Division, Madness, the Cure. We hear the full spectrum of punk: the Clash, Generation X, Dead Kennedys, Social Distortion. I hear ska, not just the English Beat, but Bad Manners and the Specials. We already know Duran Duran, Eurythmics, ABC, and Culture Club. They’re here too. The station doesn’t seem to have many records, so we hear most of these bands six or seven times over the course of the weekend, enough to learn the names and memorize the choruses. We leave the radio on constantly, even while we sleep, which isn’t much. It becomes a good way to cover the sound of our experiments. It was going to be the music that saved us from the Steves of the world.
Adapted from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, available now through Dzanc Books.