I'll admit it, I was a dumb kid. Always getting into trouble, always poking my nose into places it shouldn't have been poked. In our house in Philadelphia, all the bedrooms were on the third floor. The first floor was my father's office and waiting room. Dad was a doctor, a general practitioner. Everybody in our neighborhood came to him. The second floor was our living room and kitchen and dining room and Bubba's room (Dad's mother). She was tucked in behind the dining room, kind of a secret. There were three bedrooms upstairs: my parents', my sister Linda's, and the one my brother Paul and I shared.
The third floor was where our lives felt most intimate—and most frightening. It was rare for me to see my father upstairs. He wouldn't come to bed until all of us kids were tucked away and silent. Dad didn't take part in the intimacies of family interaction. I would have been amazed to see my father in any other state than fully, formally dressed. But it was different with Mom. Many times I would be able to look at her in various stages of undress. I have some pretty vivid (and scary) memories of seeing her naked. A boy doesn't forget this. Even when the pretense is that there's nothing out of the ordinary going on here.
I remember Mom's large pendulous breasts and the jutting brown nipples. I tell you, it didn't sit easy with me. It wasn't that I was attracted or repelled, it felt more like I was being slapped around with those things. Though I couldn't have articulated the thought, I felt like Mom was purposely displaying herself. What was I supposed to do?
There were other incidents on the third floor that seemed (in reflection) also sexually charged. My introduction to what and who women are. The answers to which seemed to be: A) unknowable and B) dangerous. Earliest sexual memory from the third floor: taking baths with my sister while being attended to by Mom. Why sexual? I'm sure I was no older than 6 or 7, which would have made my sister 9 or 10. Pre-sexual, perhaps. I mean, I didn't get a hard-on or anything. But my sister sitting behind me, her legs straddling my smooth-as-stone little body, the water warm, Mom bending in to scrub us briskly with fragrant soap; something was going on, something that felt really good.
But I also knew that they could turn on me in a second, especially if I acted like I was enjoying myself too much. Either Mom or Linda could move from comforter to tormentor in half a second. It was here that I first began to understand what seemed to be the keystone of my training. Mainly, that the only way to operate in the world without being hurt was to be very careful, to contain my feelings and to look desperately for clues from the women in my life as to what they wanted me to be.
At a certain age, I was banished from the communal bathtub and from my sister's bedroom, where up until then, my brother and I would be occasionally allowed to climb into her big fluffy bed and snuggle under the covers. My banishment must have coincided with the onset of her puberty, though it may have been earlier. Don't get the wrong idea. My sister and I were never friends. At best, she tolerated me. And then she didn't. So I took to looking through keyholes.
Whenever I heard my sister go into the upstairs bathroom, making certain no one else was around, I would sneak down the hall, avoiding stepping on the boards that squeaked, kneel down in front of the bathroom door, squeeze one eye shut and peer in at her through the keyhole. These were old-fashioned doors with large key slots, from which the keys had long since disappeared. What did I want? It wasn't sexual. Not really. I didn't want to have sex with my sister, god knows. But I can't say I wasn't stimulated by what I saw through that tiny view. It was my sister's dark shock of pubic hair that most fascinated me. I was entranced. I mean, what was that thing? I could squat there by the door, barely breathing, for as long as she stayed in that room. And since my sister would often take a book with her, I could be stuck there for as long as half an hour. It was in this position that my mother caught me.
"What the hell are you doing?" It was as if she had materialized from the air. She didn't wait for an answer. "You filthy little thing." She grabbed me by the shoulder and toppled me over backward.
"What's going on?" my sister yelled from the other side of the door.
"Nothing," Mom shouted back. "Your brother was just spying on you."
"What!" I heard the toilet flush. "That is so disgusting," she screamed.
I tried a weak lie, desperate. "I just wanted to know when she was getting out. I had to go."
"Go to your room," Mom said. "You know I'm going to have to tell your father about this."
"No, please don't, Mom. It was a mistake. I'll never do it again. I swear."
"No, I have to tell him. This is a sick thing. There's something very wrong with you, boy."
My sister banged open the door from inside and then she too was standing above me, the two of them staring down at disgusting me. I scrambled up until I was sandwiched between them, confused and scared and filled with a deep shame. "Don't tell Dad," I begged again. "Please!"
"What did you see?" my sister asked.
"Nothing," I said. "I wasn't even looking at you."
"Don't be a liar on top of everything else," Mom said.
"My own brother is a sex maniac. How am I supposed to live here now?"
"We'll stuff the keyhole with putty," Mom said. "I'll get your father to do it."
"He's going to kill me."
"You deserve to be killed," my sister said.
"Go, already, get out of here," Mom said. "I don't want to see you out of your room until your father comes up. Just sit there and think about what you've done."
I knew there was no escape. I was bad. And Dad was going to punish me. I wanted to die and probably soon would. But, as I turned away and went to my room, one image stayed with me: what I had seen through the keyhole.