I should have known from the start.
How old was I? Ten? Twelve? Old enough to know a few things about the world, even if I didn’t fully understand them. Old enough to know something peculiar was going on.
I’d picked up the phone in the family room and the man on the other end asked if I wanted to participate in a survey. I can’t remember if he asked to speak to my mother, or father, but somehow I ended up taking his survey. Why would he want a kid to take his survey? It didn’t seem to matter.
The questions started off reasonable enough. “Do you like womens’ shoes?” he asked. I thought to myself that I didn’t know about or care about womens’ shoes, but I didn’t want to appear ignorant or unsophisticated. I told him what I figured he wanted to hear, which was “yes.”
The questions progressed, each getting a bit more peculiar than the next.
“High heels?” he asked.
“Um, yes those are nice,” I replied.
“You know, those thin straps that go around the ankle… just… so…”
“How about stockings?”
On and on the questions went. There appeared to be no end to the survey. He had so many questions! And in the back of my mind, as the questions progressed, it was becoming more and more apparent that something was amiss.
“Do you like it when a woman slips the shoe off, but not entirely, and dangles it, you know, in a sort of playful manner?”
Yeah, OK, this is starting to get weird. But I was a polite kid, and couldn’t figure out how to end the call, so I just kept going along with it. The questions kept coming, but also they started becoming repetitive. The one about dangling the shoe, that kept coming back around and around in different variations. He seemed really interested in that.
I’m not sure how the call finally ended. Thinking back now, perhaps he eventually got what he needed, (so to speak) and was able to conclude the call. Or maybe I just finally hung up. I’m pretty sure I told my parents about it later, but I don’t recall them being too worked up over it. As opposed to the time some guy in a van flashed my sister as she walked home from school, and the cops came over to our house to take a report. “It looked like it was made of plastic,” she’d said.
People think kids don’t get these things, and indeed I didn’t fully comprehend things at the time. I knew the neighbors next door (the ones with the waterbed) liked to have naked pool parties, but I hadn’t figured out the full picture. They just liked to be naked around each other, right? Weren’t they embarrassed?
But this phone call, deep down I think, even then, I knew there was something kinky going on. I didn’t really know what kinky was about necessarily, but knew it was out there. And this guy on the phone, this wasn’t a survey at all, this was something else.
* * *
I should have known from the start.
I was in high school, working at a local department store after school. A man on the phone was asking about trousers.
“I’m looking for trousers that are, er, flattering,” he told me.
We have a wide range of trousers, I told him.
“Well, specifically, flattering in the crotch area.”
Oh. Well OK, how to respond to that? Though secretly I was very attracted to mens’ crotches myself, I hadn’t really thought of how this translated to trousers. Jockey briefs, yes, but trousers? I didn’t have a clue. I hadn’t yet figured out the concept of the bulge.
“Perhaps they lift things up a bit, enhance things,” he helpfully suggested.
“Maybe pleated trousers,” I replied. But honestly I had no idea. Which trousers would fit the bill? I didn’t have the nerve to ask any of my coworkers. Somehow I ended the call, perhaps finally telling him we didn’t have anything he was looking for, just to get rid of him. I don’t think I told anyone about the call.
And I’d thought nothing more about the call, until a few months later he called again. I knew the voice on the phone immediately, and this time knew exactly what he was going to ask. Same questions, but this time I suppose I was more helpful because he said he would be coming in and would ask for me by name. Well, there was a guy I worked with, another high school student, a fuckin’ golden boy in all respects, and I’d developed a rivalry with him both in terms of sales targets at work as well as social standing. “Tony,” I said. “Just ask for Tony.” I felt a little bad for what I did to Golden Boy Tony, but not really.
The guy did come in eventually, and Tony being Tony somehow sidestepped the whole thing. Maybe he was out that day, or with another customer, but for whatever reason I ended up having to finally deal with this guy. I don’t remember much about the interaction, not even what he looked like or what he finally ended up buying, but I do remember him asking how old I was.
“Seventeen,” I told him.
“You’re joking. I’d say college sophomore, easily.”
Really? People had often told me I’d looked older than my age, so I liked hearing this.
And yet, even with all this – the crotch talk, the flattery – I didn’t fully put together the whole situation. I was being cruised without knowing what being cruised meant. Clueless.
* * *
I should have known from the start.
Same department store, after school. A youngish guy is shopping for – you guessed it – trousers. He looks like he is Thai, or maybe Filipino, and has an accent. Nice looking but seems kinds of nervous. Asks lots of questions.
He takes a few pairs of trousers into the dressing room. He doesn’t come out. A long period of time elapses.
“Are you OK in there? Do you need me to get you another size?” I ask.
He tells me he needs help, that he can’t figure out how to fasten the trousers.
Weird I think to myself. How hard is it to figure out how to put on a pair of trousers?
He opens the door and is standing there, with the trousers on but unzipped. He has a strange look on his face.
“What’s the trouble?” I ask. I’m confused, I don’t get it. I’m clueless.
“I need you to do it for me,” he says.
Well this feels really creepy I think to myself. I’m not really sure why, but it just doesn’t seem right to be touching a guy like that. But he’s the customer, so I dutifully comply. I zip up the trousers and fasten the top button. He just stands there, staring, like he’s waiting for something. “There,” I say to him. I close the door and walk back out onto the sales floor, perplexed.
Why I didn’t figure out what was going on, I don’t know. Like the shoe-fetish phone call from years before, I knew something funny was up, but didn’t fully process the whole picture. Though I didn’t want to admit it I knew I was attracted to guys, but didn’t know much of anything about what they might do together. I had my porn stash, consisting mostly Playgirls but also a racy gay magazine called Performance I’d unwittingly ordered from the Adam & Eve catalog. Yet I hadn’t connected the dots between being attracted to guys, and having a guy in the dressing room invite me to touch his crotch. Utterly clueless.
* * *
Department Store, Take 3
It’s an hour or so before closing time. I’m ringing up a kid who seems about my age, or maybe a year or two older. He’s very friendly, and cute. We have a pleasant enough conversation, I think he asks me which high school I go to, and if I like it. He goes to a different school.
After work, I’m walking with my coworkers out to our cars. The parking lot is mostly empty, except for the employees’ cars and a car parked a little further out. It’s one of those fancy new Audi coupes, and someone is sitting inside. It’s the kid I’d met earlier that night in the store.
It’s been a while since the mall closed, so it’s strange for him to be just sitting there. It doesn’t occur to me why he might be there. Instead I just think to myself that it’s a fancy car, so his family must be wealthy. Or at least that’s what’s going on in my conscious mind. In the back of my mind, it seems odd but I don’t know why. Maybe he was waiting for a friend? It doesn’t feel like that.
* * *
Year later, I think back to these moments and marvel at how clueless I was. Yet at the same time my intuition was stirring and trying to fill me in. I wonder how things might have turned out differently if I’d figured things out sooner.
The guy from the dressing room phoned later that night. He was still nervous; this time he asked me if I had a girlfriend. At that time I did, and told him so. I was calm but angry, since I knew what his question implied. I was also scared, because he knew enough to ask. He’d guessed my secret, even if I wasn’t ready to admit it myself.
What about the guy in the Audi? I didn’t get the sense he wanted to get it on, as much as he was wanting a date. The exchange we’d had, I’d later learn was flirting, but I hadn’t consciously figured that out at the time. How would have things been different if I’d started dating guys in high school? This was the Regan/Bush era, and at the time it was inconceivable to me. Years later I learned that it was covertly going on all around me, but below the radar. What if I’d figured it out then?
I wonder what it’s like for the kids now. Teens now come out as gay or bisexual while in high school, and even middle school. My high school has a Gay-Straight Alliance – unheard of in my day. So I think there’s gotta be less cluelessness now. Guys can go on dates with other guys if they want, and girls with girls. That’s not to say it’s easy, but at least it’s a possibility. Thinking back, I probably would have enjoyed dating the guy with the Audi, if only I’d figured out I could.