The first time Alex sees another man's penis, a naked woman is sliding it into her mouth. Alex is sitting on the floor, crossing his legs, and leaning forward towards the television screen. His wide blue eyes are watching the woman's face as her head bobs up and down. Her long blonde hair has hundreds of tight curls, her smooth legs stretch across the bed, and her small pink nipples look like puckering lips. Alex looks at her face. She closes her eyes while the penis is in her mouth, but does not clinch them shut. He thinks she looks asleep.
The man is smirking and biting his lower lip. The thick, wiry black crescent of his hair gleams in the lighting and deep furrows line his face. He has broad shoulders, a layer of black hair covers his body and forms a T on his chest, but he is short and a lip of stomach flab hangs over his waist. However, it is his penis, not his face or body, which is the star of the movie. Alex has no frame of reference for its shape and size. Some boys catch glimpses of their father's penis, but Alex never has. His eleven-year-old penis is long, but he never wonders about its size until today. In his mind, he thinks everyone has the same penis as him. The ugly man on the television screen buries that idea forever.
His penis is a thick, glistening pink shaft as long as an infant's forearm. Bulging blue veins weave under the skin and the curving crown looks like a fist hidden in a coat sleeve. Alex feels his heart pounding whenever he looks at it. He asks himself how it can be so big. He wonders if there is something wrong with the man, or does he have a problem? When he grows up, will his penis look like that? He hopes it will. It is so big that Alex wonders how the woman fits it into her mouth without gagging.
Alex unbuckles his pants, slides them down his thick hips, and looks at his penis. It is limp, dangling towards the floor like a drooping middle finger, and three tufts of black hair are growing from his sternum. When Alex runs his fingers through the hair, it feels like the bristles of a hairbrush. He takes his penis in hand and looks at the television screen. The woman is on all fours and the man is behind her. He is on his knees, his hands clutching her hips, and thrusting his crotch into her. The camera angle shifts and Alex sees the man's penis plunging deep into the woman's vagina. Alex looks down at his own penis. There is hair growing, he notices his penis growing thicker and longer in the last two months, but it is nothing like what he sees in the movie. The woman is moaning, rolling her head from side to side, and arching her back. Alex knows his penis cannot make a woman do any of those things. He thinks it never will. It will be too small like his stomach is too fat and his legs are too slow. Alex sighs, pulls his pants up, and turns off the video cassette player. He presses the rewind button and, when the tape finishes rewinding, ejects it, sticks it in its sleeve, and slides it back onto the shelf with the title on the tape spine facing out. The title, Talk Dirty To Me, is in small, jagged black letters.
Of all the things Alex can be in this world, to be himself is the least appealing of all. He is tall for his age, but hovers between twenty and forty pounds overweight. The other kids never let him forget it. Complaining, sobbing, and stomping his feet does not stop a few hundred spitballs from smacking the back of his head or block a dozen dodge balls from hitting his stomach by his eleventh birthday.
The attackers are boys; girls are another matter. He falls in love with every girl he meets. When they stand close to him, his eyes slide away, his head sags, and his stomach flutters. It feels like a small bird is stirring to life inside of him, swelling, shaking its wings faster until his entire body is trembling, weightless, and wavering. They laugh at his stuttering, stumbling, and fidgeting, burying their faces in friend's shoulders to stifle their snickers. They do not shoot spitballs at him, call him names, or sling dodge balls at his stomach, but every girl he loves stare at the boys who do.
He thinks about the girls he loves late at night more than any other time. After he climbs into bed, the house quiet, Alex turns on a small radio and listens to love songs. He listens with a thumping heart to lyric after lyric about losing, finding, and renewing love. The girl he loves this year is Heidi and he wants to kiss her, wrap his arms around her, and hold her hand. He is swinging and watching her jumping rope at recess when one of her friends, a short girl with glasses and long red hair, walks over to him.
"Hey, Alex, Heidi wants you to come over where we are."
Alex puts his feet down and stops swinging. A slight, mocking lilt in her words raises his eyebrows. "How come? She never talks to me."
She smiles and tosses her head back. "Hah! I'll tell you why! She knows you love her." Her eyes narrow and she wags her index finger at him. "She didn't say she wants to be your girlfriend or nothin', but she wants to you to hang out with us." The girl puts a hand on her hip and narrows her eyes. "So, are you comin', or what?"
He looks at Heidi across the playground. Her thick nest of bright blonde hair extends past her sloping shoulders and she has the slender body, long arms, legs, and narrow hips of a dancer. Splashes of small brown freckles on her cheeks accentuate her eyes. Alex loves her eyes. He thinks they are the color of twilight and look like teardrops turning on their side. She is twirling one end of a jump rope, singing as another girl skips over the looping rope. She glances at him, smiles, and says something to a girl standing next to her. Both girls look at Alex and laugh, but their eyes are wide, their round cheeks rise, and their hands are waving free at their side. He is sure Heidi said something nice about him.
"Sure, I'll come."
"Alright then, let's go!"
The girl turns and trots towards Heidi. Alex stands and walks away from the swing set and onto the basketball court. There are four goal posts and six boys are playing a loud basketball game, clanging shots, stopping and starting again, and screaming at each other. They glare at Alex as he walks across the other end of the court, but no one speaks. A freezing tingle shudders across his skin. Alex knows they are looking, but he does not look at them. All that matters are the quick, breathless steps across the concrete bringing him closer to Heidi. If they say something now, if they hurl their curses and insults at him, he will not face them, frozen or flinching, waiting for them to stop hurting him like so many times before. Instead, he will run to Heidi and hug her, kiss her, and ask her to make them go away. If she loves him, everything will be better.
She gives her end of the jump rope to the girl with red hair and turns to face Alex. She takes two steps forward and smiles at him. When he walks up to her, she drops her head, shuffles her feet, and giggles.
She peers up at him and raises her eyebrows. "What are you doin'?"
Alex notices his hands shaking and thrusts them into his pockets. His knees are twitching. "Oh, nothing. I was just swinging."
She raises her head, flashes him a smile, and looks away. "You've got a funny look on your face. You surprised I wanted you to come over here?" she says. Her soft voice rises when she asks the question.
Alex drops his head and kicks the dirt with his foot. His tongue is dry and his back itches. I don't know what to do, he thinks. I'm gonna say something wrong and she won't like me anymore.
"Yeah, I didn't think you liked me," he says. He talks fast and stumbles over the words when his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth.
She smiles and cranes her head downward to see his face. "Maybe I do like you. Maybe I always have and just couldn't say anything till now." When she straightens, Alex raises his head and looks at her. She smiles again. "I know you like me though."
Alex feels heat spreading across his face and Heidi laughs. What do I say? I can't tell her I love her, she'll laugh at me. "I really like you a lot," he says, whispering, his eyes wide and unblinking.
When Heidi laughs again, Alex looks away. The boys are still playing basketball. All six have their shirts off and the dull glistening of sweat covering their bodies looks like a thin coat of grease. When they are not playing, striding and stalking around the basketball goal, swinging their shoulders, and cocking their heads from side to side, the basketball court corrals them.
"So what do you want to do?" Heidi says.
She talks fast, sharpening the end of each word, and blinking in brief bursts when he looks at her. He licks his lips and shrugs. "I don't know, just hang out?"
She crinkles her nose. "I want to be doing things, not just hangin' out!" Her eyes widen and she pauses. "You wanna jump rope with us?"
Her voice softens, the words roll out slower, her eyes relax, and she smiles again. His eyes move from her to the girls jumping rope behind her. Fear swells up inside of him. He cannot do it. He reads books, watches movies, and listens to music. He never jumps rope or plays basketball before, but he wants to. People like basketball players and jumping rope more than books. He thinks he cannot do it because he reads books, because he is too fat, too slow, too ugly, too much Alex to jump over a swinging rope without falling on his face. However, he knows he cannot say no. If he says he does not like jumping rope, she will quit liking him. If he tells her he cannot do it, she will laugh at him. I don't have to do it long, he thinks. If I can jump it two or three times, I can stop and just hang out with her until recess is over.
"Yeah, I'll jump rope with you." Alex hears his cracking voice falling into a hoarse whisper on the final two words. He clears his throat, rolls his slumping shoulders, and straightens his back.
The redheaded girl hands the jump rope to Heidi. Alex stares at the long, white nylon spool with round knots at each end. Both girls on each side are smiling and the rope curls in the dirt like a sun-bleached snake. I can do it if I time my jump right. That's all it is, I can do that, I know I can. Alex looks at each girl and smiles. He steps in front of the rope and spaces his feet an inch apart.
"Ready?" Heidi says.
Alex turns his head, nods twice, and looks at the ground. "Yup, go ahead and do it."
When Alex is bending his knees to jump, the rope swings over him and slaps his shins. He blinks and hears Heidi's friends laughing behind him. He looks at Heidi. She is pursing her lips together to hold in her laughter.
"That... was too soon," Alex says. "Let's do it again."
She lowers her head and widens her eyes. "The rope's comin', you gotta jump."
Alex frowns and nods. "I know, I know." He stares at the ground, furrows his eyebrows, and waves her off with his right hand. "Come on, let's do it again."
"Alright, get ready."
He knows the rope is swinging when the hair on the back of his head flutters and jumps. I did it! His chest is heaving. The rope swings around again, but when he jumps, it is too late. The rope loops around his left foot and pulls him off balance. He falls into the dirt, catching himself with his hands.
Laughter blasts him from every side. He hears the shrill giggling of the girls, Heidi cupping her hand across her face, her shoulders bouncing up and down, her head bopping from side to side. He hears raw laughter from the basketball court and turns his head to see the boys standing close together, their dark eyes glaring at him, slapping their hands against their legs and across each other's back, their chests swelling. Alex is on his hands and knees and staring into the dirt. The laughter does not stir his anger. Instead, his thundering heart is straining with panic. He cannot understand why they hate him for being fat. He cannot understand why they hate him for not playing their games or tripping over their jump ropes. He cannot grasp the reason why they are tearing him down with their giggling and laughter and the gnawing fear blossoming from that lack of understanding eats him alive. He is the problem. No one makes them change. Everyone wants him to change because there is something wrong with him as he is. If he stays fat and doesn't play their games, no one will ever like him. The laughter will keep coming, growing louder and louder.
He says nothing to anyone. While they continue laughing at him, Alex stands, brushes off, and walks towards the school doors. He goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and wipes a smudge of dirt off his cheek. The panic gripping his heart loosens and tears well up from deep within. He clutches the sink and throws his head back while he sobs. When he lowers his head, he looks down and sees his loose, dangling shoestrings.