I still remember reading my first explanation of “blue balls.” In the fourth and fifth grades among my most treasured possessions was a collection of weathered teen magazines. Each issue included several send-in Q & A sections revealing to young readers the mysteries of dating, make-up application and sexual health. Even as a child, I never ceased to wonder what kind of person bothered snail-mailing these vague and impersonal queries. The questions were always given the simple citation of “Annie, 14” or “Lauren, 16.” And it was Annie or Lauren who asked about blue balls.
The reader wrote, “My boyfriend and I were fooling around last weekend, and we almost had sex, but at the last minute I decided I wasn’t ready yet. He got upset and said I gave him ‘blue balls.’ Am I causing my boyfriend pain?” As any wholesome American teen rag should say, the expert responded that, no, Annie/Lauren’s boyfriend was fine, that ‘blue balls’ was simply spermicidal congestion of the testicles, amounting at most to a dull ache. Perhaps, it was suggested, Annie/Lauren should find a new boyfriend who understands her need to wait.
I could spend all day dissecting teen magazine rhetoric, but the question here is in regards to my social and sexual education. What could Seventeen and Self have possibly offered a fourth a grader? While the notion is somewhat discomforting, even the most vigilante and hawkish parents can’t filter what their children will glean from pop culture, nor can anticipate the bewildering variety in content. Did my mother ever wonder, standing at the grocery checkout counter, what was in those magazines that I hoarded my weekly allowance to buy, and what it was about them which I held so dear?
We were driving through West Virginia en route to Indiana at four in the morning. All five seats were filled. Chanelle woke up and, as she had three times already, asked, “Where are we?” And then, “What song is this?” Grizzly Bear’s new album had just come out, and we were listening to the same angelic, choral refrain we’d been listening to since we’d left the town where we broke down. “‘Two Weeks,’” I said. She listened faintly to the gentle, driving piano, and the lyrics promising, “Maybe sometimes/Make it easy/Take your time.”
“Oh,” she said, and dozed off again.
Earlier that day, as the transmission gave its final rumble, we realized Sweeney should probably have taught Robby how to drive a stick-shift before we got on the road. We’d started with a great plan. Over our ten-day spring break, we’d give ten readings, distributing our journal from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin. In each new state, every licensed driver would learn stick. We crashed at a friend’s place in Philadelphia the first night, and by the next afternoon we were broken-down on the shoulder of a small highway in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.
I called the bookstore in Columbus and canceled our reading that night. Then Triple A towed us into town. Sitting in front of a motel next door to the mechanics, we ate cold beans out of a can while the tow-truck guy told us, Yep, yer transmission’s definitely dead, and the shop’s not open ‘til Monday. So Sweeney and Robby hitch-hiked to Harrisburg to rent a car. The rest of us kicked around a patch of grass behind, rolling cigarettes from an enormous can of Drum. A man living in the motel came out to greet us and asked us if we were the Manson family.
When they returned that evening with a $150, 8-day rental, our hope was rekindled. Then we set off for what was now an eight hour drive to Indianapolis, where a friend offered to put us up. He promised bratwurst and beer. Our next reading was in Chicago. Chanelle put on Grizzly Bear, and we were still listening to it when we arrived at dawn.