Katy Perry warbles on the CD player. My eyes scan the road ahead of me, early morning trip to school. Tired. I peek in the back seat of the CRV to see my eldest son, nearly 12, singing along to Perry, quietly, suddenly YOU! MAKE! ME! FEEL LIKE I’M LIVING A! TEENAGE! DREAM! He yells along with Katy, arms akimbo, shaggy hair covering his face. He’s eleven and gangly tall, like a half grown golden retriever puppy whose limbs don’t always communicate well with his body. He is young, but any semblance of babyhood is gone, hard to find in the strength of his jaw and the new presence of cheekbones, muscle definition beginning. Manhood is emerging.
I pause at a red light. The song fades and he asks, “Mom, I think I’m sweating more under my armpits. I ask, “Would you like me to get you antiperspirant?
“No, I was just noticing it. Hey, what does it mean when a girl says “I’m late?
Kid, push in the clutch when you change gears, I think. But I answer, honestly.
“Menstrual cycles are 28 days, more or less. When a girl has had sex and her menstrual cycle is late in arriving, she might be pregnant. Missing your period is a sign of pregnancy, but it could also be a sign of illness or stress.
“Ok. That makes sense.
We pull up to the school, so I don’t get to find out the context within which he learned that phrase. Middle school is filled with a passing down of all sorts of arcane knowledge. The 8th graders learn from the high schoolers, and then through a dangerous game of Telephone, pass the Great Mysteries of sex and drug lore and dating ritual to the youngest set. Often, incorrectly.
The next day, getting groceries. He’s quiet, thinking, face screwed up in a scowl.
“Hey, what are you thinking about? I ask.
“I’m just so mad! My friend brought his mom’s backpack to school and there was a tampon in it and everyone made fun of him! It was SO SEXIST!
“What’s a tampon?? he says.
Ok, less impressed, but still his sentiment is in the right place.
“A tampon is basically a piece of absorbent material a woman can place inside her vagina to block and contain menstrual flow when she’s on her period. It’s a totally natural thing for ladies to have in their bags. No one should make fun of him, that’s correct.
“Right. That’s what I thought. He pauses. “Mom? Does the whole uterus come out each time when a woman has her period?
I stifle laughter and horror at the thought and describe the basics of the menstrual cycle and what the uterine lining is, why it’s there and why it sloughs off each month.
“See, I know way more about that stuff than those kids. That’s stupid to make fun of someone for having a tampon.
We unload the groceries and he plays video games as I make a lasagna.
These drives to school, from the store, running errands provide the framework for a conversation, a passage of information from me to him, and back again. I drive, looking forward, our eyes not meeting. He sits in the back seat, with god only knows what expression on his face. I don’t probe too much, don’t offer too much information. The questions end as suddenly as they begin. Sometimes it’s hard to stop explaining the information. But he makes it quite clear when he’s finished taking it in.
The next week, on the way home from school, he remarks casually that a friend had told him that if you rub your penis, stuff will come out of it and it will feel good when it happens. He asks if that’s normal. I respond yes, while wondering how his friend knows this. It’s happening so soon, I think.
I relay that when a man has a climax, his testicles produce semen (which can impregnate a woman) and the semen is ejaculated out of the penis. It does produce something, that my good friend Sadie Smythe so aptly named, a super sensation. I tell him that it’s a private thing, for his body and that his body belongs to him. That bodies are private and that privacy should be respected.
“Do girls ejaculate? he asks, clearly less interested in the ethics of privacy than how bodies work I don’t know how to answer that. Or more accurately, I do know how to answer it, but I’m afraid to. Afraid it’s too much, afraid it’s too complicated. Afraid there aren’t enough drives in the world to cover all the ground that his endless questions might lay out. Afraid too, that if I don’t answer the questions, and correctly, he’ll find his ways to wrong information. “Sometimes they do. But not always. That’s maybe a question you can ask a little further down the line. I try.
“Ok. he says. “What’s for dinner?
I’m in awe of him, of what I see forming, growing, expressing itself. It’s like standing next to a fawn in a forest. I remain as still as humanly possible, barely breathing for fear he’ll dash off, into some new form, metamorphosis in real time into something that doesn’t need me anymore, knowing full well that’s exactly what should happen. I am aware I have to go at his pace, that he may one day stop asking me, telling me. Now though, he still trusts me with his questions. And I will honor him with answers. We will drive as long as he needs.