Some people peak early. I was one such.
My glory years were in middle school. We’d moved back to a small town in Westchester County, New York, and I was a little taller, with a bit more of a well-knit, man-like frame compared to the other young men. The long hair, stitched body shirts, and bright-colored jeans I wore from my Toronto days were well ahead of what was locally on offer.
Most of the kids were still dressed by their moms every morning, in checked button-downs and cowlick-prone cuts. Plus I hung with my older sister and knew all the cool music and — even better, the coolest of the cool high-school kids.
Naturally I starred as The Devil in our production of Damn Yankees and, after the standing-Os all five nights, walked into the wings to see the shining round eyes of the girls in the chorus. When I picked up a guitar, or banged out something on the piano, their eyes got even rounder.
I was, I do believe, a nice fellow as well, and I didn’t have a gang, or an entourage, nor was I captain of any sports team. Based on what I’ve heard recently from others who were there — ah, social media is a beautiful thing — I was just kind of seen as someone the others wanted to hang out with. Like I said, I peaked early.
But of course, that has its responsibilities. Teenage romance literature — and comic books like True Romance and Heart Throbs abounded in those days, with stories of the plain girl who gets swooped up by the hottest guy, but it always turned out to be on a bet. Or was ignored by the hottest guy. Or bullied by the hottest guy.
Of course, he sees her fine qualities in the end (after she takes off her glasses, undoes her pony tail and removes her turtleneck to reveal an awesome figure) and they live happily ever after. Or the alternate ending, where the hot guy ignores her in junior high school, but when she comes back from boarding school, gorgeous, refined, and beautifully coiffed, he falls in love not realizing it’s the same person, and so she gets both her revenge and the object of her desires.
It was not lost on me, therefore, that the cool kids could have a devastating impact on those who were not in that category, if they weren’t careful.
Then came the day when I was not careful. I was chatting with friends in the cafeteria, and surveying the pretty girls — all in their sixties now, hard as that is to imagine — when a short, chubby little boy crossed my path on his way back to class. I noticed him because I hadn’t seen him before, and also because he was wearing a button on the plain, creamsicle-colored t-shirt he wore, on his fat chest where the left nipple would be.
I cannot now recall what the button said, but we were a little button-mad in those days. “Save the Whales,” “Ban the Bomb” and “Make-Love-Not-War” (this was in 1972 remember) were popular, though very, very few of the kids in that school had any clear idea exactly what “making love” truly consisted of.
I did, and I had already come damn close. I knew what a young woman’s breast felt like naked, the taste of her nipple in my mouth, and even the exotic and incomparable scent of a woman’s sex on my fingers. Hanging with my sister’s friends had its advantages.
This little boy who passed by, I assumed, was still several years and a major growth spurt away from any of that. I’ve no idea why but as he passed, I stepped in close and he stopped short in surprise. I don’t know if my God-like presence as a “cool kid,” or simply a larger person coming so near made him put on his brakes, but he pulled up and stared at me. I reached out and poked the small metal disc on his chest and said in a friendly way, “Hey, nice button, kid,” and stepped back.
There was, as I recall now, a flash of shame in his eyes that sent off alarm bells in me. He blushed and moved on without a word. And it was only as he passed, and as I watched him head for the door, that I realized with a shock what the problem was…
Jimmy Throxton, a character in one of Robert Heinlein’s so-called “juvenile” series books I loved at the time, commented on a similar mistake. He and his friend Rod are stranded in a cave with a third young man Rod had picked up along with way. Rod says to Jimmy of the third kid, Jack:
“He’s a good boy.”
Jimmy looked surprised, opened his mouth, closed it suddenly.
“What’s the matter?” Rod asked. “Something bite you?”
“What,” Jim said slowly, “did you say about Jack?”
“Huh? I said they don’t come any better. He and I team up like bacon and eggs. A number one kid, that boy.”
Jimmy Throxton looked at him.
“Rod, were you born that stupid? Or did you have to study?”
“Jack is a girl.”
There followed a long silence.
“Well,” said Jim, “close your mouth before something flies in.”
“Jimmy, you’re still out of your head.”
“I may still be out of my head, but not so I can’t tell a girl from a boy. When that day comes, I won’t be sick: I’ll be dead.”
Apparently, I was dead. Or wished I was. I had just placed my popular index finger on the nipple of a young teenage girl. I had done so publicly and, it might be perceived, mockingly. I was highly aware even in that moment of the potential ramifications of that action.
I don’t mean I was worried about legal repercussions, as I would be today, or even social repercussions. While the feminist movement suggesting women be treated with respect, be seen as peers and equals, and be left unmolested, was already well underway, we had not reached the level where anyone would get expelled from school, or even spoken to by parents, for such an action.
But I didn’t need any of that for my own shame to set in. I realized this girl, this young woman as we might say today, did not know that I was too dumb to see that she was female.
She didn’t, and presumably doesn’t, know that I realized it afterwards, that I felt remorse about it and wished I could have that one back.
All she knew was that one of the coolest boys in the school had publicly touched her breast and laughed.
I don’t remember seeing her again, or trying to apologize, nor did I know how to organize such a thing. What would I say, after all? “Hey, sorry I poked your nipple in front of everyone. Didn’t mean to embarrass you, I just didn’t realize you were female. My bad!”
Sure, that would have helped a lot.
I don’t know if that girl was actually traumatized. If she went home and cried herself to sleep, as she would have done in one of those comic book stories. If she called her friends that night sobbing. If, like the women in all those romance books, she vilified me in her diary, vowed revenge, or planned to seek me out and break my heart once she grew up to be a beauty.
Or if, as I hope, she walked on thinking, “Jerk! That guy is one of the cool ones? What an asshole!”
She may well have gone on with her life never again remembering that tiny little incident, that split-second demeaning moment. I will never know if it left a scar somewhere on her teenage soul.
She certainly does not know that I have remembered it all these years. Or that my one little action, not intended to hurt or mock or upset anyone, but careless and thoughtless nonetheless, left a wound on me, a small, white raised area on my conscience that has never quite healed.
 Tunnel in the Sky, Robert A. Heinlein. Scribners, 1955