The year: 1974. The location: the nurse's office at Spring Branch Junior High School, Houston, Texas.
I sat in a wing-back chair, my eyes fixed on a plastic statuette that said "World's Greatest Nurse."
The school secretary knocked twice on the door and opened it. "She's on line 2, Sheila."
"Thanks, Fran," said Nurse Hawkins. She put her paperwork aside, picked up the receiver and pushed a button at the base of the phone that made a chunky plastic sound. "Hello, is this Mrs. T? This is Nurse Hawkins from Spring Branch Junior High. How are you today?" A pause.
"Yes, yes, I'm afraid I have some difficult news. Are you sitting down? Good."
She opened a folder on her desk and reached for a pencil. "Our gym instructor got a look at Kurt this morning after P.E.. Coach Lankowski has concluded, and I agree with his findings, that your son has V.D.."
A note to younger readers: V.D., or Venereal Disease, an archaic term meaning "Sexually Transmitted Infection," remained in wide use by school nurses and health educators up through my senior year of high school.
"How did he get it?" Nurse Hawkins' gaze shifted towards the wall opposite her. "That's difficult to say, but from the looks of things, I would say he's been inappropriately pleasuring himself." Another pause. Longer this time. I heard my heartbeat.
"Yes, yes. That's the kind of pleasuring I'm talking about."
Over the internal tumult of my body's escalating panic response, I heard what sounded like my mother's voice converted into a frantic electronic squawk.
Nurse Hawkins interrupted. "Now this is no time for losing your head. There's a treatment center we can put him in. I've already made some calls, and there's space available. I'll need you to sign a waiver."
I wiped a sweaty palm on my pants leg.
"What's that? No, no, I'm afraid there's no time to pack a suitcase. The van will be picking him up in ten minutes. Be brave, dear."
That's just the way I remember it.
My needless anxiety about masturbation, I mean. Wait. You didn't think that really happened, did you?
No, I revisit that scene from my private Theater of Teen Horrors to make the point that once puberty came, it brought a wide range of troubling apprehensions in its wake, and I didn't have a lot of information at my disposal to help me separate out the reasonable concerns from the paranoid delusions.
This was 1974, OK? We didn't have the Internet. We didn't even have Oprah.
But we had books, thank goodness. One night during my freshman year in high school, I was at a sleepover at my friend James' house, and he recommended a book to me that was sort of a version of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex*, but written specifically for teenage boys. His mom, a single parent, like my own mother, had given him this book, because she figured reading a book was an easier thing for a teenage boy to do than having a series of awkward conversations with his mom about masturbation and how to put on a condom.
Boy was she right!
I took the book home and read it in one sitting. It was the only form of sex education that I'd received since that time more than two years before, watching Rusty and LuAnn and the animated penis on the big screen in Mr. Hoezel's room.
That's right. I flew into puberty blind. I was so uninformed, I worried that I could catch some kind of disease from masturbating. Any time I leaked a little seminal fluid after I urinated, I'd think "Oh crap. I broke something. That must be from all that masturbating."
Or I would have thought that, but I didn't know what "masturbate" meant until I read this book. That's how I learned that word.
That and one other word: "circumcision."