I was twelve when I kissed my mom open-mouth.
I was hugging her before going away on a scout campout. Then I did it.
Mister Kolchek, my scout leader, was going to be there to pick me up any second. Mister Kolchek did not have a son in scouts anymore, but he loved campouts. He was nice enough to pick me up for meetings and teach me knots, since my dad was dead.
My mom turned her head during the kiss, and I slobbed her cheek. It surprised me when she did that and I dropped the plastic grocery bag with the extra socks and sweatshirts she made me bring. It was supposed to be chilly at night even though it was almost spring break.
I picked up the bag, and my mom asked, “What was that?”
She was referring to the kiss. I didn’t say anything.
Then she said, “Don’t do that again. Never do that with me.”
I hadn’t planned the kiss. I just did it.
I had been practicing my kissing skills on the crease of my elbow. I would close up my arm like I was putting my hand over my heart to say The Pledge of Allegiance, and then I would bring my elbow to my mouth and make out with the crease-y part.
“I’m sorry,” I said to my mom.
“It’s okay. I love you,” she said. “But never do that again.”
I waited for a few minutes and then Mister Kolchek was there and we went camping.
When I kissed my mom romantically, I was pretending she was Doctor Hansen. I loved Doctor Hansen because she was beautiful and because of the way she would touch my cheek to move my head during my eye exam. She smelled like clean clothes and mints.
I felt at home in Doctor Hansen’s office. She understood my typewriter eyes. They were not weird to her. In fact, she liked them. She said they were “unique.” The kids at school called them typewriter eyes because they go back and forth the way the typing part does on a typewriter. They did a sound that went with the name, click-click-click-ding. My mom explained it to me. She had used a typewriter at work and said my eyes were nothing like what a typewriter did. She said not to worry about what the kids at school said. I couldn’t help my nystagmus. I was born with it. It might get better on its own, or it might not. It was beyond my control. The things beyond our control are what make us different, my mom said, and we have to accept those things and move on. The kids at school punched my shoulder when I said they were jealous of my uniqueness.
I told Doctor Hansen about the punching at my last eye exam. She made a joke.
She said not everyone felt the same way about my eyes. She said, “It depends on how you look at it,” which was the joke. I laughed. She was so pretty.
That night after I kissed my mom, while at the campout, me and my tent-mate Lance made penis shadow puppets on the roof of our tent. The way we did this is we shined our flashlights from behind our penises to show our penis silhouettes on the windbreaker material that the roof of the tent was made of. It was like the signal that is used to call Batman, but with penises.
It was funny. Lance’s was more like a mushroom than mine.
Then Lance asked, “Has Mister Kolchek ever done anything sexual with you?”
I asked, “Like what?”
Lance said, “Um. Touching and gay sex.”
“No. He mostly gives me rides to meetings and helps me with the tautline hitch. Why? Has he touched you any?”
“No, but my mom doesn’t want me to be alone with him.”
I put my penis away.
“Because his son is too old for scouts, but he still goes on campouts. She thinks it’s weird.”
“Oh yeah that’s true,” I said.
I thought Mister Kolchek just liked doing scout things.
I didn’t say anything, and Lance didn’t say anything. On campouts, that’s how we knew it was time to go to sleep, after we both didn’t say anything for a minute.
Not counting Doctor Hansen, there were three girls I was in love with.
Before falling asleep, I flipped through thoughts of them like my thoughts were three TV channels with something good on at the same time. Two of the girls were eighth graders. Everyone loved them. They were in a tie for biggest titties.
The other girl probably knew I loved her and was nice for not rubbing it in. She said hey to me at school. We were both gifted and talented. She lived two streets over, and her older brother went to Harvard. My mother always reminded me of that to show it could be done.
Bethany Tunks’s brother is at Harvard, she would say. So it’s not impossible—you can do it. Even in these schools!
I asked Bethany once, “How does your brother like Harvard?”
She said, “The people are snobby.”
“I know, right.”
I told my mom about this, and she laughed—Ha!
She said if snobby Harvard kids were our biggest problem, then we were doing all right.
Falling asleep in the tent that night, my thoughts ended with thinking we would be all right because our problems weren’t that bad. I could always think of worse things, like my dad dying or kids being blind. At least I had eyes.
I tried not to think of my dad being dead, but sometimes I would unexpectedly think about it. It had been more than a year since he died, but my mom said every day I reminded her more and more of him. Living with me was like living with a scary little rerun of him.
And it wasn’t getting any easier.
For example, a few days before I kissed my mom, my Success Skills teacher Coach Diaz, who took over our class after Miss Morgan left to have her baby, thought I was messing with her by making my eyes wiggle back and forth while she was teaching. I told my mom, and she said, Oh my God, I am going up there in the morning.
I was called out of Pre Algebra and sat outside Doctor Bradley’s office while he talked with Coach Diaz and my mom.
I sat in one of the chairs kids sit in before getting in trouble.
Coach Diaz was wearing whoosh pants and a T-shirt like she had come from volleyball practice. Coaches could wear clothes other teachers couldn’t. Everyone seemed uncomfortable when compared to the coaches.
When I was called in to Doctor Bradley’s office, Coach Diaz said, “John, I am very sorry for what I said about your eyes. I thought you were trying to play a joke on me. You’re very bright and very funny. I had no idea.”
She did not look at me. She looked at the ceiling. She seemed angry and not angry in the way that coaches usually seem angry. She took more breaths than she needed.
My mom said, “Oh please.”
Doctor Bradley moved his eyes back and forth from my mom to Coach Diaz. Doctor Bradley was fat. Some people called him Doctor Fatly. His major problem was too much cheek.
Coach Diaz said, “I apologized.”
My mom said, “You know, if his father were here,”—then she took a deep breath and looked at Coach Diaz—“I would hope you people would show a little more compassion. He doesn’t need this from teachers.”
My mom put on some chap stick, but she did it in a way that showed she was angry.
My dad died in a car accident. I hated thinking of the accident, and when I thought of it, I would rush those pictures out of my head. I would replace them with happy memories. My favorite took place during the summer, before school started, when my dad was jogging and ran into a ladder sticking out from the back of a repairman’s pickup truck. He was listening to music and not paying attention. That night his face swelled up purple and red. His eyebrow and forehead were scratched. It freaked me out a little, but to make me calm, my dad did his impression of Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone in the movie “Rocky.” We had watched Rocky because this year I was supposed to stand up to the kids at school like Rocky stood up to Apollo Creed, but school was not like boxing. At school, it was against the rules to punch—even if kids were giving you a hard time about your involuntary muscle conditions of the eye. Punching was considered fighting, and in Rocky, fighting was pretty much the whole point of life. When I think about my dad, I hear him doing his Rocky voice. He is dancing around our living room on his toes, calling my mom Adrian, and throwing his fists at the air. My mom is laughing.
My dad worked second shift, so a lot of the time he didn’t come home until I was in bed. After Rocky, it was easy to think of him out late training for a fight, and sometimes still, when I’m trying to fall asleep, I have to stop and tell myself that he’s dead, that the accident happened, and he’s not coming home. I try not to picture his swollen face, but sometimes I do.
Then my mom touched my shoulder and said, “She didn’t know about your nystagmus, but it’s okay. I asked Doctor Hansen to call and explain. Your teacher worries about children playing jokes on her.”
I didn’t say anything. When Doctor Bradley nodded, his cheeks and neck became the same thing, the way the folds in an accordion stretch out when it gets played.
“I’m very sorry, John,” Coach Diaz said. She looked at me, and her voice was serious. Then it was quiet. She slapped the sides of her legs.
My mom put her chap stick away and said she had to get back to work.
Doctor Bradley said, “Thank you Coach Diaz. You may return to the gym.” Then he looked at me. He smiled and said, “I guess that’s that.”
I said, “What?” but by then everyone had moved on with their day.
Before the next meeting, I told Mister Kolchek I wanted to quit scouts.
We were standing outside my apartment.
He said, “What does your mom have to say about this?”
I told my mom I had an English project due. This was part true. We were reading The Hobbit, and there were books that came after The Hobbit. I wanted to read them too. Our teacher had given us class time to work on our project.
I told Mister Kolchek, “My mom says I have to focus on my schoolwork.”
“School is important,” he said. “But so is finishing what you start, and you started scouts.”
I said, “But that could take years.”
“I know you’re behind, but I could help you get caught up.”
All the other seventh graders had made First Class, and I was stuck on Tenderfoot.
“I think I would rather quit,” I said.
Mister Kolchek opened his mouth to say something but didn’t say anything for a second.
Then he said, “It disappoints me to hear that, John,” but I didn’t care who I disappointed as long as it wasn’t my mom.
Me and Bethany were doing our project together in English because it was a group project. We were supposed to draw pictures of characters from The Hobbit and then write about: 1. Where they came from; 2. What they wanted; 3. What they feared. These things made them unique characters. In our other classes, Bethany and I got stuck doing all the work when we did group projects. We would always get put in groups with the dumb kids. We liked the English teacher because she let us be our own group, the smart group.
We were working on some main characters from The Hobbit when I asked Bethany: “Do girls have sexual thoughts about adults?”
She put down her green pencil, for she was coloring a monster.
She said, “Like who?”
“Oh like,” I said, trying to think of someone who was a good adult age, “like Doctor Bradley.” Since Doctor Bradley was fat, I assumed no one had sexual thoughts about him. I said, “But skinny. If Doctor Bradley lost weight and had muscles, then would you think about him sexually?” I would’ve said Rocky Balboa, but I wasn’t sure if Bethany had seen that, since she didn’t have problems with people teasing and punching her.
“I don’t have sexual thoughts about Doctor Fatly,” she said.
“Yeah but,” I said, “other people maybe. Grown ups.”
“I used to like Luke from 90210, but I don’t anymore. I think he is twenty.”
I said, “My cousin Kimmie’s boyfriend is twenty and she is sixteen. That’s fairly common.” I had stopped drawing Bilbo Baggins. I could not draw and talk at the same time. I wished I had taken on the coloring duties because coloring was easy to do while you did something else. “Is Luke the oldest person you have thought about in that way?”
Kimmie’s boyfriend was Nate. Nate explained to me that Metallica was a band and not one guy. Nate and Kimmie did not last long as a couple, but I will always remember him for clearing up my confusion about Metallica.
All of a sudden, I knew how to draw Bilbo. He should look like Rocky Balboa, but shorter and in Metallica.
Bethany said, “I have had sexual thoughts for older guys. But I have thoughts for boys in our grade too.”
I said, “Oh well of course.”
In conclusion, if I could have sexual thoughts about Doctor Hansen, who was older than Bethany but younger than my mom, it seemed possible that Mister Kolchek could have thoughts about me, at least if he were gay, and he was probably gay since he liked being around men on camping trips all the time. If I could kiss my mom out of the blue like I did, I had to watch my back for being kissed by adults. The world was out of control.
Our next scout meeting was Monday. Mister Kolchek stood outside his minivan with his arms crossed over his belly. He was in his work clothes, not his scout uniform, because sometimes he had to come pick me up straight from work. His work clothes were khaki pants and a white button-down shirt. He wore a beeper on his belt for when someone needed him at work. His job was doing security for a chain of restaurants, which I thought must be a good job because he had time to go to night meetings and weekend campouts. He probably got home while his son was still awake, back before his son left for college. Mister Kolchek’s son went to a university with a football team everyone liked. Nobody wore T-shirts for Harvard.
He said, “I’ll wait while you put on your scout shirt.” His mouth and eyebrows indicated he was not in a hurry, but I didn’t want to go to the meeting. When I thought about changing shirts with him waiting outside, I felt cold and embarrassed.
I said, “I don’t want to do scouts anymore.”
He blew air out of his nose and said, “I’ve really tried to do the right thing with you.”
I said, “I’m sorry. It just feels weird to me to be in scouts.”
“Do you ever think about what your daddy would want you to do?”
I shook my head. I didn’t think about my dad like that. I thought of my dad mostly when my mom was quiet and I would ask, what’s wrong? And my mom would say, I’m sad, and I would know it was because of my dad being dead because that was the only thing that ever made her sad.
Mister Kolchek said, “I think you should stop before you quit and think about what your daddy would want you to do,” and then he got in his van and drove to the meeting.
What happens in The Hobbit is this: A little man with big hairy feet goes inside a mountain and kills a dragon even though the whole time he thinks he can’t. He meets a lot of creatures and becomes friends with most of them.
“I wish I were a hobbit,” I told Bethany.
“That’s because you’re a boy,” she said.
I asked, “Who do you wish you were?”
She bit her thumbnail and looked at people walking by in the hallway. We had a substitute, so everyone was talking louder than usual. Some of her hair was in her face because she was leaned over writing, and when she looked up, it hung down around her ears, loose and free. I liked her best with her hair down like that.
“I wish I were me,” she said. “But maybe in England.”
That night, I thought about Bethany when I kissed my elbow crease. It was a little different than when I imagined it was Doctor Hansen because now, between kisses, I told my elbow all the reasons living in Texas was better than living in England.
My next eye exam occurred right after school ended, while I was reading The Two Towers. Doctor Hansen asked me if things had been better at school because Doctor Bradley had called her about Coach Diaz way back when that happened.
I explained some of the events that had taken place over the last year.
I did not tell her I open-mouth kissed my mom.
I told her how I quit scouts because I wasn’t sure if Mister Kolchek was a molester or not. I explained how Coach Diaz thought I was pranking her by moving my eyes funny in Success Skills. I told her about Kimmie and Nate, Metallica, Rocky, and The Hobbit.
I did a lot of talking.
Meanwhile, I was in the leather chair getting puffs of air shot in my eyes. I was asked if I had any Floaters.
I said, “What are Floaters?”
Doctor Hansen said, “If you had Floaters you would know it.”
I said, “Oh then no.”
I finished by telling Doctor Hansen about how I hated my nystagmus and wished it would go away. I was sitting in the chair waiting for my pupils to un-dilate. I was wearing paper sunglasses that made me look like the science fiction version of myself.
Doctor Hansen crouched down in front of me and touched my shoulder.
Some sexual thoughts began in my imagination.
She said, “I know this is hard,” and she touched the hair on my forehead. “You’re at a difficult age, but it will be okay.”
Instead of saying something, I opened my mouth like I had practiced. I tipped my chin up to her. I puckered my lips and waited.
For a second, I thought of my dad. Did he do it this way?
Some things I did just like my dad. My mom was always saying that living with me was like living with a little copy of him, and that’s what made everything so hard sometimes. Each day, I was more and more like him and I didn’t even know it. I opened jars like him. I had the same floop in my hair that he had. When I smelled a rat, I did a face with one eyebrow up and one eyebrow down, like he used to do. I had no idea how he did kissing, but that was okay. All the time, I was doing these things just like him. And if I could be like him without knowing it, I assumed I could be exactly like him if I tried.
I held my eyes closed and waited.
Doctor Hansen said, “I’ll see you next year, John. I hope you have fun in eighth grade.”
I stayed there, sitting with my lips ready, kissing nothing, my eyes pinched tight behind my spectacular glasses. I could hear the dry sound of pencil-writing, and then her warm, minty smell left the room.
I stayed in my seat. I didn’t want to leave. Maybe she would come back.
When my mom found me, she said she didn’t know what had gotten into me lately. She explained that my behavior had been inappropriate.
She said, “What’s the matter with you?”
I said, “My nystagmus is gone. I am cured.”
That was the second best thing that could have happened to me at an eye exam. While I sat there, I imagined how great it would be to be cured, and then I imagined how great it would have been to kiss Doctor Hansen. I flipped back and forth between these thoughts like I did when I thought of the girls I loved.
My mom didn’t speak again until we were in the parking lot. Sometimes she needed a minute to think.
Then she said, “People will say something is wrong with you if you keep doing strange things like this.” She said she knew about the penis puppets. She said Mister Kolchek had called and told her. She asked, “Do you want people to think something’s wrong with you?”
I didn’t want that, but I didn’t answer. I was still pretending to be cured. An old man wearing an eye patch shuffled slow across the parking lot toward Doctor Hansen’s office.
I smiled at him and said, “Hey there.”
He nodded to me.
I lowered my paper sunglasses on my nose so I could enjoy the super-bright sunshine of the part-dilated world. I knew I was not cured, but I might not ever be. I wanted to pretend. I wanted to know what I would do if it was me who killed a dragon. Would I start shouting like Rocky? Would I play a song about it on a shiny black guitar? I wasn’t sure. I had been born with nystagmus, so I couldn’t imagine seeing anything without it. Still, I knew I would be happy about being cured. It would be amazing. Everything would look different, like nothing anyone had seen before. Sometimes, I felt so close.
Photo By: Daniel Peckham