My brother and I loved playing with Barbies. Our formula for fun followed three simple steps. 1.) Undress Barbie. 2.) Rip off Barbie’s head. 3.) Position headless-naked-Barbie in compromising positions throughout her Dream House. When we were particularly motivated, or desperate for arcade money, we’d leave my sister a Polaroid of Barbie tied up along with a ransom note. But, more often than not Mike and I would merely grow bored with the limitations of Barbie’s stiff anatomy, toss her unassembled limbs in the backset of her convertible, then ram the car into walls or burry it in our sandbox.
Had Mike and I grown up to be mass murderers, profilers might have used these early scenes of decapitation-home-invasion mixed with sexual assault and car jacking as evidence of our innate, evilness. Like most moderately well behaved boys, we found that it was more fun to pretend to be bad guys. At the very least we were using our imaginations; boys born a generation after us could act out far worse scenes with far less creative gusto via video games like Grand Theft Auto. While this type of play may seem perverse, it’s a normal consequence of a healthy curiosity about the female anatomy mixed with a boyhood need for mayhem. Just as Barbies are conduits for girls to pretend to be adult women, these dolls let boys practice interacting with naked women, without anyone actually having to lose their heads.
Unfortunately Barbie’s use as a teaching tool for Mike and me was limited due to her lack of genitalia. When it came to penises, we knew every possible use of such a versatile organ. In a pinch we could transform our penises into squirt guns, fire extinguishers, tools for vandalizing walls, pens for writing in snow, or water cannons for battling fire ants. The purpose of vaginas, however, eluded us. Without penises girls couldn’t even participate in the time-honored tradition of sword fighting.
Mike and I didn’t as much sword fight as we played “Star Wars” or “Ghost Busters”; our high fructose urine streams more closely resembled light sabers and proton packs than swords. I actually had higher aspirations when it came to our pee games: I wanted to perform synchronized water ballets, or pretend to be stunt pilots weaving our jet streams together. Mike lacked my artistic flare. When I attempted to practice figure eights and arabesques, he would kamikaze my stream—I could go on indefinitely about the strange rituals boys invent for their penises. The point is that I couldn’t understand how girls survived, urinated, or even kept themselves entertained for hours on end, without such essential body parts.
Vaginas were black holes of mystery, primeval caves, both foreboding and inviting. In their mystery, they seemed to hold the secrets of life. Like other curious boys growing up in the pre-Internet dark ages, Mike and I searched in print for answers to the questions presented by vaginas. We pieced together a rough blueprint of the female form from Encyclopedias and National Geographic magazines. While our mother was sedated by the religious and holistic healing sections of Half Price Books, Mike and I executed reconnaissance missions in the art section. We looted shelves of books containing nude photography. Unfortunately for us most of the nude models had bushy pubic hair that disguised the details of their feminine mysteries like the fake beards of secret agents.
One lucky afternoon we discovered the book, Where Did I Come From? in the children’s section of the used book store. We assumed the volume had been hidden there by a fellow vagina archeologists before his capture and subsequent imprisonment to a lifetime of timeouts and chores. The book featured cartoonish images of an older couple naked. Mike and I fought over the book so raucously that our mother rushed over and plucked it from us. We were mortified. We expected her to punish us by making us recite the rosary during our favorite cartoons. Instead she offered to buy it. She must have been so excited to see us so captivated by a book, any book, that she failed to realize what it contained. At home Mike and I immediately set to work tracing the book’s graphic cartoons as though we were transcribing treasure maps. It seemed only a matter of time before the prophetic tome was stolen by a friend or confiscated when our mother realized her folly.
While we were acquiring some theoretical knowledge on vaginas, our hands-on training was still nonexistent. No girls we knew would willingly volunteer as patients for our experiments, even when we wore the medical coats and stethoscopes and nurse hats from our bin of dress-up costumes, or demonstrated our steady, surgery-ready hands in the board game, Operation. We were left to deduce what we could about the female form from decapitating Barbies and operating on road-kill with sticks and firecrackers. Needless to say, we were not the type of boys mothers regularly invited over for play dates with their daughters.
By some miracle, Mike and I ended up at Vivian’s house. Her home was so far removed from our plane of existence that we may as well have teleported there or caught a ride in a flying car. Vivian lived on the wealthy side of town in Great Hills. Unlike our parent’s house, her place wasn’t the type of playscape where we could crack our jump-rope bullwhip, leap between furniture to avoid falling in hot lava, or practice any of our other archeological, Indiana Jones-inspired maneuvers. Vivian’s mother was a professional artist. In my memory, her entire place was covered in framed paintings of naked women and other lewd artifacts. There was even a drawing of Vivian, naked. In an effort to shield our eyes from this museum of corrupting beauty, our mother ordered us to go play with Vivian in her room while the adults discussed plans for our latest camping trip with our Indian Guides troop.
Vivian was different from every other girl we knew. She was pretty and delicate in the way television girls often were. Her immaculately clean room featured a door to her own, private bathroom. This was just as impressive to Mike and me as if she had a trapdoor to a secret laboratory. Vivian told us that she kept a secret in the bathroom that she wanted to show one of us. Never-mind that she said her secret was a rock collection. She could have said she had a jar of farts and we would have still been excited. Vivian evoked the eeni meeni miini moh gods to determine which one of us would accompany her into the bathroom and gaze on her wonders. I won.
Vivian locked the door behind us. I knew something exciting was about to happen beyond simply expanding my knowledge of geodes. When the bathroom door in my house was locked, that meant one of two things: 1.) you were getting naked, or 2.) you were pooping. I hoped for the former.
Vivian pushed her underwear to her ankles, pulled up her dress, and hopped on the toilet. Maybe it was a bit of 1 and 2. The sound of her urine hit me with a rush of relief.
“You can watch,” Vivian said, “if you want.”
I leaned closer trying my hardest to heed my mother’s instructions to keep my hands to myself. What I saw defied description. I felt like my face was glowing, like one of the evil Nazis looking into the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark just before their faces melted off. Up until this point I had assumed my interest in the female anatomy was simply an intellectual curiosity, on par with my interest in buried artifacts. Vivian offered me a first glimpse into an underworld of desire that went legions deeper than I could have ever fathomed. I could have been left to explore every inch of her anatomy for days with a headlamp and a pickaxe and I would not have even scratched the surface in understanding the source of her vagina’s power. This single glimpse was enough to brainwash me, to convert me to the cult of the vagina.
Vivian hopped down and let her skirt drop like a curtain.
“Don’t you got to pee too?” she asked.
“Nope,” I said, shaking my head while I stared at her dress, desperate to figure out how to get her to lift up the fluffy folds one more time.
Vivian stared at me, confused.
I had to keep her in the bathroom as long as possible. I asked about her rock collection. She pointed to a handful of machine polished stones at the bottom of a fishbowl on the ledge of her sink.
I couldn’t have been less interested if she had showed me, well, a bowl of rocks. As I leaned close to appraise the stones, Vivian unlocked the door and walked out.
I was crushed. Nothing about the encounter made sense. I knew only that I had messed up somehow. I feared my stupidity would set me back years in my understanding of the opposite sex and their cavernous mysterious, that I had dashed any hopes I might have had of becoming a reputable medical doctor whose professional opinion was sought by girls as many as two blocks away.
It did not hit me until years later what Vivian had been up to. First off, Mike had been the clear choice to look over her gems. He had thick glasses like magnifying glasses and a rock collection of his own. I’m also fairly confident that Vivian did not follow proper “eeni meeni miini moh” protocol when picking me. At the time it just didn’t occur to me that a girl as polished and refined as Vivian would have any interest in seeing my family jewels. The idea that penises were filthy little objects of shame and disgust was reinforced constantly by our parents yelling at Mike and me to put our penises away, to stop stuffing socks in our super hero underwear, and to never ever show our penises to anyone, especially if they offered us money or candy for the service. I knew I had much, much more to learn about vaginas, but I realized too that I had underestimated the power and mystery of my penis, particularly when it came to enchanting the minds of the opposite sex.