Wednesday

MEN WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING

On the afternoons when his mother went to visit her mother over in Edina, Jeff Simko, the boy next door, would phone me to come over. I was fourteen years old and quite in love with him. My mother was a librarian in a nearby high school, and I had no siblings. So during the day no one was ever home at our house.
Jeff and I would stand next to the bunk bed in the room he shared with his older brother, arms tightly wrapped around each other, and kiss on the lips for what seemed like hours. After awhile, I would open my mouth a little, pushing my tongue between his lips. He didn’t seem to like that.
Occasionally, he would place his hand on my breast. He would twist his hand clockwise, often pushing my bra, which was of much greater volume than its content, off of my budding breast. It mystified me why he would want to do this; but if it gave him pleasure, I was happy to have him paw me so.
I would get tired standing; and with the bed so close, it exerted an enormous pull on me. But Jeff would resist my attempts to tumble him on top of me. I can’t say it was lust that was driving my urge to lie with him so much as a yearning to be closer, to have him exhibit more passion for me.
I was a lonely, isolated child. My mother was in her fifties, my father his early sixties, a stern, grim-faced man who I can barely remember ever speaking. When I was eight, they sat me down and told me I was adopted, but that they loved me just as much as if I were their very own natural child.
This information did not surprise me, for our relationship had always had an odd formality to it. I never threw tantrums. I don’t remember ever demanding things in the bratty, whiny way of a child who feels entitled, at home with its selfishness.
Finding out that I was adopted confirmed my sense that I was different, that I was alone, that I was not safe, that I was not loved like other children.
I was blond with an olive complexion,. My parents had dark hair and pale skin. In hindsight, they remind me of New England Calvinists, whereas I project a kind of earthy sensuousness.
I was pretty, with what you might describe as trailer trash looks, the kind of appeal of Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean – lush, sexy, but clearly not the face you see among children at Choate or Exeter. What is it with America? The icons of our sexuality – Ava, Lana, Loren, Frankie, Brad, Jennifer – have often been the product of an impoverished, single-parent childhood. Perhaps these kind of faces hold up better on the shabby pulp of the tabloids.
It was an afternoon in mid-June, and I was alone in my room reading an Archie and Veronica comic book. Well, piecing the story together through the drawings, for in truth I was severely dyslexic.
The phone rang, shattering the silence of our empty ranch house. Jeff said, “Come on over, right now.” He never inquired whether I was free, or doing my homework, or involved with friends. It was common knowledge that I was not part of any clique, even the nerds.
My heart soared as I cut through the rhododendrons that separated our backyards. An unarticulated optimism quickened my step. The sky was blue, the weather warm, pollen floated in the air, and leaves sprouted on the towering oaks of our old suburban neighborhood. I had begun wearing sleeveless blouses and shorts to school. My legs and arms were tan. I was certainly not conscious of it, but I imagine intense sexual feelings had begun to spread outward from my inner thighs. Perhaps I would be able to tumble Jeff on top of me.
As usual, the kissing began with us standing at the edge of his bed. The bedroom door was closed, and right behind Jeff was his closet, the door slightly ajar. I placed my lips against his, puckering them slightly, hoping he would slip his tongue into my mouth. Instead, he rotated me fifteen or so degrees to the left, then began unbuttoning my blouse. That accomplished, he slipped his right hand under my brassiere and, with the same studied clockwise motion with which he had massaged by breast from on top of my blouse, ran his hand over my bare bosom. It was arousing, dizzyingly so, for his hand was warm and soft and nobody, save Dr. Bell with his ice-cold stethoscope, had ever touched me there. It felt so wonderfully naughty.
Without warning or foreknowledge, I suddenly found myself moaning aloud. “Oh, oh, Jeff, oh, that feels so good.” Then I heard a voice, “Hey, move your big fat head, I can’t see,” then some laughing, and then a clanging of hangers, and then after that a hoarse whisper, “Shhh, for Christ sake, she’ll hear you.” With that, the closet door popped fully open and out tumbled Harry Van Buren and Doug Blume, fellow eighth graders. A moment later, as if to position himself as above all this, out strode Tommy Simko, sixteen, Jeff’s older brother and a junior at Minnetonka High School. He was half a foot taller than the others and his jug ears and short hair made him look like a marine.
Jeff said, “I’m sorry, Miranda. These guys are such losers they’re never going to get any tail. I thought I’d show them how you do it. I’m really sorry.”
I couldn’t understand why he was being so apologetic. I was thrilled to be at the center of so much curiosity.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” whined Harry. “I want a feel.” My blouse was unbuttoned, my bra marooned well above my small naked breast.
Jeff looked over at me, as if to measure my take on Harry’s request.
I shrugged. “I don’t mind.”
Jeff nodded for him to proceed, and Harry stepped closer and placed his hand on my breast. He didn’t move it back and forth, just cupped it over the modest mound of flesh. “Neat,” he said, “Soft,” and moved respectfully away.
“What about you, Doug? Want to cop a feel?”
“Nah,”
“What’sa matter, chicken?”
“Nah, just not in the mood.”
Tommy Simko looked around at the assemblage, then said in a suddenly firm and angry voice, “Alright, all of you, out of here.”
I thought he meant me and started to follow the others out of the room. He grabbed my wrist. “Not you,” he said. “Lie down on the bed.” He walked over and closed the door, and as he came back over to the bed he was unbuckling his pants. He loomed over me. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Fifteen,” I fibbed.
“Christ, you look about ten.” He bent down and pulled off my underwear. “Grass on the green, huh. Know what that means?”
It was as if he were speaking a foreign language. “Time to play ball.” With that, he leaned forward and began nuzzling his face between my legs. I was astonished, having never imagined this as part of human behavior, normal or otherwise. He kept at it for quite some time, eventually sticking his tongue inside me and wiggling it back and forth. It felt quite good, and after a while, I just naturally pushed myself up toward his mouth.
He slipped a pillow under my behind, then slid up my body. He tried steering his penis into me but could not get it in. “Shit,” he said and got off the bed. With his jeans around his ankles, he waddled to the door, opened it, and hollered, “Hey, Jeff, bring me Mommy’s jar of cold cream.”
As Jeff handed him the jar through the door, Tommy asked when their mother was due home. “Not till about 5:30,” said Jeff. “What are you doing in there?”
“None of your effing business.” He shut the door and bolted it.
Tommy waddled back to the bed, stuck his erection in the jar of cold cream, then climbed back on top of me. This time he was able to push his penis inside me with little difficulty. It didn’t hurt, but I can’t say it was very pleasurable, either. Actually, I felt very little until suddenly he began to buck wildly up and down. I liked this a great deal, particularly when I felt his spasms inside me, because somehow it made me feel he could not do without me. I remember thinking, this is a sensation I would like to experience many more times. And, of course, I have.

I am the one driving the rental car on this mid-June afternoon through the tree-lined streets of Chaska, a middle-class suburb southwest of Minneapolis. As we grow older, I see it more often: wives driving, husbands happy to be relieved of the responsibility.
Raymond has his eyes peeled for the house numbers posted on mail boxes, front doors, trees. “Are you sure it was 337?” he asks.
“This isn’t even the street yet,” I say. “Relax.”
Unlike me, Raymond hasn’t a clue how to program, use, or even turn on the GPS. To my right I see the old town tennis courts, red clay, five of them, same number as when I was a kid. I know to make a left just past the courts. The GPS announces, “Make your next left.”
I turn onto Sunset Street, and take my foot off the gas pedal, letting the car drift along on its own momentum. Everything looks both different and the same. It is still a leafy, residential neighborhood, with giant elm and tulip trees forming a canopy over the street. And yet there are the modern evolutions: driveways crammed with three and four cars, most of them SUVs; elaborate jungle jims, painted forest green with climbing rungs of unpainted wood; odd, garish banners flapping over front doors and hanging from porches.
The GPS announces, “337 Sunset, you have arrived at your destination.” I pull the car to the curb and there, where my old house used to sit, is an edifice that stretches almost the entire width of the property. “Oh, my god, look what they’ve done to it,” I cry. “It must be 6,000 square feet.”
“That’s disappointing.”
“I guess it’s just the way things are. All of a sudden all the young turks working at General Mills and 3M want to live in Chaska.”
“I wanted it to be just like when you were growing up here.”
“Raymond, I suspect none of the people in the building trades here were aware of your fantasy.”
He laughs. “But if they were, I’m sure they would have indulged me.”
I am catering to Raymond because last week, during a cystoscopy down at Mayo, the urologist found several polyps in Raymond’s bladder. The doctor said it would be nearly a week before the biopsy is back, so to take Raymond’s mind off his morbid preoccupation with what he is convinced will be a dire result, I suggested we take the short flight from Phoenix to Minneapolis and do something he’s been wanting to do for the nearly three decades we’ve been married: revisit the scene of my deflowering.
I point out the modest colonial just to the left of where my house used to be. “You’ll be happy to know,” I tell him, “that the only difference in the Simko house is that it is now painted cream instead of white.”
“Is that where you used to cut through the rhododendrons?” he asks.
“Well, for one thing, they’re all fir trees now, and second, unlike this monstrosity, our house stopped about thirty yards short of the property line. So in my day it was a much longer walk. Gave me a chance to have much wetter drawers.”
“Stop trying to indulge me,” he says sharply. “I hate when you do that.”
“Sorry.” It’s very difficult to anticipate the constructs that will ignite Raymond’s imagination. He loves to learn that I find someone other than himself sexually arousing, but the discovery has to be almost accidental. If I volunteer it too readily, then he assumes I am trying to please him. Apparently, trying to please him ruins everything. He likes my desire to be illicit, wanton, something I feel must be hidden from him. It also works if it’s something that happened a long time ago.
A woman somewhere in her late seventies answers the door. Through the weave of wrinkles and sagging cheeks, I recognize Mrs. Simko. “Yes, can I help you?” she asks rather warmly.
“Mrs. Simko, hi. I’m Miranda Knapp.”
She looks at me curiously.
“I used to live next door.”
“Oh, my God, Miranda. How nice to see you, dear. Come in. What brings you back to town?” If only she knew.
We step into the vestibule. Aside from its looking considerably smaller, the rug, the chandelier, the mirror on the wall are exactly as I remembered. “This is my husband Raymond Phayer.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Phayer,” she says a touch coquettishly.
“Call me Raymond.” He takes her hand in both of his. “I’m certainly not going to call you Mrs. Simko.”
“Oh, no, of course not. I’m Grace.” Raymond pats her hand before letting it go, and I can see that even while haunted by his impending biopsy results, my husband’s instinct is to charm the ladies.
“How about a cup of tea?” she asks.
“Oh, we’d love to. But do you mind if I show Raymond around first. He wants to see where Jeff and I used to play gin rummy and things.”
Without quite realizing when he’s appeared, I notice there is now a fourth person in the room, a male of about my own age, maybe a little older. He has on a cardigan sweater over a yellowed white shirt, and his face has the collapsed look of someone who is missing most of his teeth. His ears protrude, and what little hair he has left is long and unkempt.
“Tommy, look who’s here,” cries out Grace, with the forced gaiety of a parent who is working hard to keep her rage toward her child under wraps. “Miranda Knapp, the girl who used to live next door.”
My eyes shoot over toward Raymond, who is taking in the scene with a barely contained look of horror.
“Raymond, this is Tommy,” I say, “one of the Simko brothers.” The two men shake hands. Tommy turns to me. “You’re Miranda Knapp?” he asks somewhat incredulously.
“I am.”
“You sure have changed.”
My impulse is to say, So have you. But I worry it’ll come out sounding terribly cruel.
“People say you moved to New York and became some kind of big fancy dentist.”
“Actually, it’s New Jersey. A town called Ridgewood, not unlike Chaska.”
“Tommy, show Miranda and her husband around while I brew us up a pot of tea.”
It is a one-story house, just as I remembered. “This is Mom’s bedroom,” says Tommy. “Dad died in 2000, and Mom didn’t like living alone. So I moved back home.” He leads us into his mother’s neat, tiny bedroom. There are dozens of photos on the far wall, and Raymond and I fall into a sort of trance as we study them. There is Grace in a bathing suit, making like Sophia Loren on the back porch of a cabin next to a lake; Tommy and Jeff dressed for church; Tommy as a young man in some kind of military uniform; Jeff in a suit next to a pretty young woman in a bridal gown; Jeff with two small children on his lap as part of a large family picture, the kind someone would take at a Thanksgiving gathering.
“Oh, my God, Miranda, here’s one of you,” says Raymond. “Look how pretty you were.” And indeed there is a picture of me, standing between Tommy and Jeff on our front lawn, the three of us in parkas. It is winter and apparently we have just built a snowman. I have no recollection of the scene whatsoever.
“And where did you and your brother sleep?” Raymond asks suddenly.
“Same place I sleep now.” Tommy leads us toward the rear of the house. “It’s only really a five room house, when you think about it. Soon as we sell it, you just know someone’s gonna knock it down.”
We enter the bedroom, which I remember in excruciating detail. There is no longer a bunk bed, just a lone single cot in its place. Raymond marches right in and opens the closet, as if expecting to find someone hiding there. The closet is a mess, a pile of laundry heaped on the floor. “Never been any good at cleaning up,” says Tommy.
Mrs. Simko, Grace, has brewed a surprisingly bracing pot of Earl Grey, which she serves with some delicious shortbread cookies. Tommy doesn’t sit with us, just sort of hovers in the background.
“What do you do for a living, Thomas?” Raymond asks.
“Well, I used to sell snowmobiles and tractors at the John Deere dealership up in Brandon, but now that I’m back in Chaska I’ve got my hands full just taking care of the house and running errands for mom and things.”
“Aaron left us a very nice pension,” adds Grace. And I suddenly remember that Mr. Simko had taught English at Edina High.
“Do you have a family?” I ask.
Tommy chuckles. “Uh uh, women have always been pretty much a mystery to me.”
Raymond looks at me meaningfully.
“Grace,” I say, “I notice from the photos in your bedroom that Jeff seems to have a very nice family. Do they live nearby?”
Grace looks over at Tommy, and they hold each other’s eye for a moment. “Well, Jeff isn’t with us anymore.” Her eyes tear up instantly.
Tommy moves closer to the table. “Jeff – Jeff shot himself a couple of years back. It was during elk season. The sheriff up there listed it as a suicide, but Mom and I know it was an accident.”
“He had so much to live for,” says Grace, “two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, and a good job teaching school, just like his father. They were about to make him head of the department.”
“Oh, no. Oh, no,” I say. “That is so sad. I am so sorry.” I reach out and take Grace’s hand.
“His wife was no good, carrying on with the neighbor,” adds Tom.
“Oh, I am so sorry, Grace, I am so sorry.”

I make Raymond drive on the way back to our hotel in downtown Minneapolis, for I cannot stop whimpering. I keep murmuring, “Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no,” my eyes closed, my face buried in my hands. I feel an overpowering desire not to see anything.
Raymond touches me gently on the shoulder. “You still love the boy, don’t you.”
“He was so sweet Raymond, so sweet.”
“Well, not really,” he says hesitantly. “He hid all his friends in the closet.”
“Don’t you understand, you idiot – he felt bad for them. He was the prettiest child – every single girl in the eighth grade was mad about him. It came so easy to him. He was sharing his success with his friends.”
Raymond didn’t say anything for a while. “It’s funny, when a guy is really good-looking women will forgive him almost anything.”
“All my life I’ve regretted it was that awful brother who took me. Now…now it makes me feel like puking.”

Just as we arrive back at the hotel, Raymond’s cell phone rings. It is Dr. Hoffman, his urologist. Raymond presses the speaker button. “Good news, Mr. Phayer, your biopsy has come back negative. We’re going to have to cystoscope you every four months or so, keep an eye on those polyps. But right now you’re good to go.”
As we pad about the bathroom getting dressed for dinner, Raymond, uncharacteristically, draws me a bath. He gets me a bottle of Evian from the mini-bar. A complete role reversal. I am suddenly the one who is being catered to.
At dinner, he orders a bottle of Dom Perignon. “Dr. Hoffman said you shouldn’t drink any alcohol till a good two weeks after your cystoscope,” I say.
“Fuck ‘em. No cancer, I drink.” The bottle costs $265 here in the restaurant of the Minneapolis Ritz Carlton. After a second glass, my despondency metamorphoses into an almost pleasant melancholy. Raymond puts his hand over mine. “You know, I do believe you love that boy more than you’ve ever loved me.”
I shrug. “I don’t think so,” I manage to say.
“No, no, it’s okay. It’s wonderful, in fact. One’s spouse is always some sort of awful compromise. But the person who first invades your consciousness when you’re a kid, the excitement you feel in their presence – what could ever beat that.”
“He was so beautiful, Raymond, so unimaginably beautiful. He had a high forehead, a broad intelligent brow, this wonderful blond buzz cut, almost platinum, and azure eyes. He looked at people so sweetly. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Every time I saw him, I felt an impulse to lick him, his face, his hands, like a cat.”
When we climb into bed, Raymond, as I predicted, is all over me. “The doctor said no sex until five years after your cystoscope.”
“I have an idea,” he says. “You were kind enough to indulge me in my stupid desire to revisit the taking of your virginity. How boorish of me! How insensitive! So let’s pretend it wasn’t that awful brother who forced himself upon you, and that you are still a virgin. And that it’s the younger one, the sweet one, Jeff who is lying with you. How would you want it to happen? I realize, of course, that at seventy years of age, my belly spilling over the elastic of my pajama bottoms, that I am a poor substitute for a beautiful pubescent boy, smooth of face, sweet of smell, but I do have nice blue eyes.”
“You have beautiful eyes, Raymond.”
“Then how would you like it to happen?”
“I – I would like us to be lying on the top bunk of his bed, not the bottom. I would like to climb up first, and have him climb up right behind me so that he can see the cute little bunnies on the pretty new pink panties that my grandmother had just bought me at the Edina Discount Department Store. I would be lying on my back beside him, and he would lean over and kiss me, and this time he would let me slip my tongue in his mouth and then he would slip his tongue in my mouth and we would just kiss and kiss and then everything would take care of itself.”

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