In 1989, I was a fourth grader at the Immaculate Heart of Mary school in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. For some inexplicable reason, the Catholic grade-school version of sex education had been added to the curriculum that year. Life is confusing enough when you’re 9 years old; throwing God and sex into the mix concurrently was more than my tender, dweeby little soul could process.
The first thing of spiritual substance we learned that year was that Hell awaits those who indulge in impure thoughts. This was taught in a sermon the morning of our first class, so while it wasn’t explicitly stated in sex ed proper, it was not difficult to draw a parallel. It made perfect sense to me, because I’d already experienced divine retribution related to deviant thinking. The previous summer, I’d been unable to stop myself from recording an episode of The Animated Adventures of the Little Prince. I’d hidden it in my closet with the express purpose of pausing the VHS in order to get a good look at the Rose Girl’s bare chest. I knew it was wrong, but still waited breathlessly for the next moment my parents were both out of the house. She didn’t even have nipples, but the urge was overpowering.
This act of budding sexual compulsion happened to coincide with my grandfather’s arrival from Lebanon. That first night, I walked into the bathroom to find him brushing his teeth at the sink. He was naked, save for the derby cap that was always perched atop his skeletal head and sock garters that were struggling to support his drooping knees.
I saw everything.
At the sound of the door swinging open, he gave the greatest spit-take in the history of time and unleashed a string of expletives in Arabic that chased me as I tore ass back down the hallway. It was the most he’d ever said to me, and he dropped dead of a heart attack a week later. Murdered, obviously, by my need to see a cartoon bosom.
The guilt was overwhelming. There was no way I could tell my parents what I’d done. I rushed to the confessional. My detailed play-by-play left the priest on duty speechless, which only reinforced my certainty that I was on God’s shit list.
It only got worse. Shortly before Christmas, I began having a recurring dream wherein all of The Monkees, beginning with Mike Nesmith and ending with Davy Jones, lined up in front of me and pulled down their pants so I could see their underwear. That Davy Jones went last felt heavy with meaning.
Now we were midway through the year, and I had become paralyzed with fear over the concept of nocturnal emissions. For the record, Catholics are better prepared to discuss the theory of wet dreams while dancing most delicately around the actual mechanics. Sister Catherine was vague; nocturnal emissions are caused by thoughts about sex, but they only happen when one is asleep. The body betrays the mind by ejecting fluid from your unconscious form. I just couldn’t wrap my head around how horrifying it sounded. The Rose Girl’s featureless chest and Davy Jones’ bare little English thighs were supposed to be my own secret shame. Visions of my mother walking into my room to discover me snoring in a pool of my own obscene goo terrorized me.
I spent the final month of the term in a constant state of heightened anxiety. I refused to sleep, and when I did accidentally drift off, a hornéd Peter Tork winked and gnashed his teeth at me. At mass on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, Father Archer seemed to pause judgmentally before begrudgingly placing the host on my tongue.
On the last day of my sex ed class, I held my breath as Sister Catherine reached into the basket where we were encouraged to drop any questions we might still have. It was supposed to be anonymous, but even while cowering from across the room I could see the heavy hand of my own, utterly recognizable block print embossed through the scrap of paper she held. The tiny nun opened and closed her mouth. Before I could look away, her eyes met mine and I knew that everything about the question smacked of my identity: “How much fluid does a nocturnal emission leave in your sheets?” And, “Does it make any noise?” And, “IMPORTANT–will it come up with soap?“
To Sister Catherine’s credit, she tried to answer my questions, but I’ll be damned if I remember what she said. I slunk down low in my seat as my stomach clenched and my ears rang with the all the crescendoed fervor of a Latin boy’s choir. My mortification was such that any further incipient voyeuristic fantasies of seductive plants and the undergarments of pop idols were more or less purged from my mind. That is, until the summer of 1992, when my discovery of a Billy Idol cassette in a local Salvation Army led to an afternoon of soul-searching and it all began afresh.