How a Single Act of Teenage Cruelty Saved My Life
Rich kids can be particularly mean.
I took pride that I was not one of them. Instead, I was a good middle-class boy with profound ambitions. I had already shown an exceptional aptitude for academics. I entered middle school with a thirst for recognition, both in the classroom and with my classmates.
I was raised by an especially adoring mother, unlike most teenagers. I felt very confident. I considered myself not only smart, but also pretty good-looking in my pressed corporate khakis and button-down shirt. I silently derided my contemporaries for talking about frivolities like soccer or clothing while I pored over history books and statistics, committing to memory minutiae from all kinds of subjects. I acted much older than I was.
There were only about 50 kids in my class, from seventh grade all the way through twelfth, at my small prep school called Williams on the campus of Connecticut College in New London. We got to know each other extremely well in that time, for better and worse. Most kids in my class came from upper-class backgrounds, from families that couldn’t bear the idea of sending their offspring to public school.
No longer little kids, yet nowhere near being adults, no one knew how to interact. We went from playing in the playground, running and jumping, to social awkwardness. Our hormones raging, my classmates swung from whispering gossip, passing catty notes, acting savagely toward one another, then holding hands moments later.
By the time we reached middle school, most of us were starting to see ourselves as sexual beings. In Sex-Ed class I learned to spell “vagina” and “spermatozoa,” but not practical stuff like how to deal with the burgeoning sexual tension building up in my body.
The answer, of course, came another way. One afternoon, after I and my buddy Mike, who lived down the street, had our fill of playing Task Force on his Apple IIgs computer, he mentioned that there was this amazing thing you could do with your penis: “If you rub your dick for a while, it feels awesome.” The details came through hand gestures: The first method being the thumb-and-forefinger method, then the fire-starter method where you rub your penis between the palms of both hands.
Rubbing my dick wasn’t anything I had thought of before, and the idea excited me. Not long after Mike’s demonstration, I stole his father’s Playboy magazines and started masturbating over pictures of women’s asses and breasts.
I began to develop a fancy for several girls in my class. I had never interacted much with girls other than my sister, and occasionally her friends who hung out in her bedroom. What they did behind closed doors always seemed a mystery to me. It was clear that I wasn’t invited.
Those first weeks at Williams excited me. It was a new school with a new crowd. I was ready to march in and take it by storm. After a couple weeks of sizing up my female classmates, I decided to introduce myself to a small group of attractive girls who regularly sat together in the cafeteria-slash-study hall. One afternoon, I resolved to walk right up to them and work the magic of my charms. Surely I could make friends with anyone I wanted. My mother had shown me that I was special.
There were four girls at the table, including three I found really attractive. They watched me approach from my side of the cafeteria, giggling, whispering. I wore pressed Dockers khakis, a red-and-white button-down shirt, Dexter shoes and a cowhide belt. My mother had slicked my red hair to one side and told me I looked great. I believed her. Surely the girls would think so too.
“Hello there,” I began, standing with a wide smile above the table.
They looked up at me, smiling as if at someone who’s not in on the joke. Their giggling grew into laughter even though they struggled to hold it back.
I was mystified, though not yet understanding the meaning of their laughter.
“Hi,” responded one girl, meekly. She looked at her friends quizzically. Suddenly the laughter grew louder.
My expectations started crumbling fast. I could feel the blood rise to my face; I began to blush.
“What are you talking to that dork for?” one girl admonished the other. Kids at neighboring tables had noticed what was happening by now, the rumble of laughter growing around me.
Suddenly the world spun on her words. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I went bright red. Time seemed to stand still as I looked around at the mocking faces, kids laughing hard at my expense.
Utterly bewildered, I went back to my table, red-faced, where I attempted to concentrate on a marine biology lab report. But I felt consumed by shame and self-doubt, feelings I hadn’t seriously experienced before. Perhaps I really wasn’t good-looking and didn’t have much to offer girls. Or anyone for that matter. I sunk into my books.
In the weeks and months that followed, I internalized what happened in the cafeteria. My self-confidence plunged. While I may have been smart and charming to my mother, I was certainly no Lothario. I convinced myself I had nothing to offer girls. Clearly they didn’t like me or how I looked or how I behaved. I was a “dork.” I abandoned the idea that I might ever be attractive to girls and officially gave up the idea of pursuing them. I withdrew into study and devoted myself to excellence in the classroom.
The consequences were far more profound than any teenager could imagine. They didn’t end in middle school. From that moment, I doubted my romantic abilities and vowed to never again put myself in a position for women to reject or humiliate me. Unlike my other male classmates, who regularly endured rejection, I viewed it as a losing game. And I didn’t like losing.
While the rejection stopped me from pursuing girls, it didn’t, of course, end my sexual dreams or fantasies about them, even those girls who mocked me in that cafeteria-slash-study hall.
I turned my attention to my studies and to friendships with other boys who seemed to admire and respect me. While I was considered a “dork” to girls, my good looks, intelligence and wit had a value among boys. Although I never had sex with them in middle school as boys often do, I did develop deep, quasi-romantic friendships with my best male friends.
Those friendships continued through high school. They opened my mind to the possibility of gay sex, which I finally realized during my first year at Columbia University in 1996. I quickly discovered that I could get all the sex I wanted from men without much work at all, obviating the need to contend with women for the same purpose.
“Fuck you,” I thought, imagining those girls from school. “I don’t need you after all.”
During my last semester at Columbia, after returning from a year abroad in Berlin, I began a relationship with a sexually experienced older man who introduced me to the extraordinary pleasures of casual sex. I discovered I could satisfy all my desires, and more, with as many partners as I wanted. There was no application process as there would have been with women, no fear of rejection, no humiliation, no mocking laughs or embarrassment. Just pure, carnal satisfaction without the hoops. Often I didn’t even say hello to the other person.
Despite the pleasure of gay sex, my fantasies still drifted to women. I imagined their soft bodies and delicate hips, their sweet smells and beautiful eyes. It was no surprise that I was attracted to slim, small, smooth effeminate boys because they reminded me of girls.
Through determination and discipline, I developed my body in daily work-outs at the gym. From a tall lanky boy, I shaped myself into an impeccably sculpted figure. Never again could I be considered a dork. I inhabited my body with pride, using it as commerce, in bars and at clubs. Men admired and envied me; woman began to pay attention to me.
For ten solid years I kept my middle-school vow to renounce women. I had only one stray sexual experience with a girl during my first year at Columbia.
Gradually though, I started having sex with women more regularly. At first I paid escorts. There was no chance of rejection. Then I was invited by a friend to join a wife-swapping group where I began having sex with married women. I wasn’t required to interact much socially in these settings, and I found myself highly valued for pleasing women while their husbands watched. I quickly found that I was sought after as a sexual object by willing women. I might not have had confidence to interact, but through my experience with men, I had become a talented virtuoso sex performer.
Now my sexual interests alternate freely between men and women. My appetite can be voracious. I no longer fear rejection, nor am I reacting in its long wake. I found pleasure in the power that I have over people and the reactions I incite. In the end, my mother was absolutely right.
On a recent visit to see my mother, I wandered the hallways of my middle school. The cafeteria-slash-study hall looked exactly as it did in 1990, though now students worked with laptops rather than paper and pen. As I lingered in the doorway, I listened for laughter, but there was none other than in my head.
During that visit I told my mother about the events in the cafeteria, which I had kept secret all these years. She was saddened that such a “small incident” could have had a defining influence on my life. She asked if I felt sadness or regret. For a moment, I tried to imagine how life might have turned out otherwise. Do I feel sadness or remorse?
Truly, I have none. What I feel instead is a deep sense of gratitude for one small act of teenage cruelty that sent me on an extraordinary journey which has brought an abundance of self-knowledge and richness that I might never have discovered. I suppose by now I would have just been another suburban husband, but instead my path has led to stores of creativity and a life that is truly my own.
Thank you, Alexandria!