Like every other living man in the United States of America, I can remember the first time I ever saw a condom. Mine was a case just like all the others: I was 11-and-a-half years old, and it happened in broad daylight, in a school yard, during after-lunch recess. It was, as usual, a troubling experience, mostly because it belonged to a boy named Marvin Ray Luster, who had just gotten out of the hospital, where he had had his appendix removed.
Marvin Ray was, true to form, a despicable lout of a creature. The first kid on the playground to have a demonstration rubber is always a despicable lout. Marvin Ray, for example, would go on to rob grocery stores, albeit unsuccessfully, since he could never get anyone to drive the getaway car. Over the course of his short, ill-spirited life, he would work at a number of service stations, where he pumped gas and left streaks on the customers’ windshields. He would, however, eventually demonstrate a certain talent for taxidermy. His body would be discovered on the back porch of the misshapen house he had inherited from his parents. In his arms he would be clutching a stuffed beaver, and he would be wearing a pair of size-42 pantyhose and a Caterpillar heavy equipment cap. The actual circumstances surrounding his death would never become much clearer than that. Not a great many questions were ever asked.
But that day on the playground, during the after-lunch recess, Marvin was methodically carrying out the work he was put there to do. One by one, he called boys aside, saying, “Hey, come here, you wanta see something?” And, one by one, each of the boys went, knowing he was going to see something he shouldn’t be seeing at 12:45 p.m. on a grammar school playground. Each of them went, figuring he might as well get on with it, knowing his childhood was going to end sooner or later anyhow.
I was pretty far down the list, so, by the time my turn came, Marvin Ray’s rubber had lost almost all its identifiable shape. And yet, when he said, “Hey, come here. You know what this is?” I knew what this thing was that I was seeing. I did not know a word for it, but I knew what it was supposed to be used for, even if I was not precisely certain what it was that men and women did when they had sex.
I remember that Marvin Ray stretched the rubber out so that I could read the small print that said, “For prevention of disease only.” I remember thinking it must be a pretty racy experience for an 11-year-old to have his appendix taken out. I looked at Marvin Ray’s condom and realized that he knew things about mejust as he knew things about every other boy on the playground. Most horrifying of all, I realized, they were the same things he knew about himself. I had never talked with anybody about sex, there at age 11-and-a-half. Nevertheless, in that fleeting instance, after just a glimpse of that flaccid piece of flesh-colored latex, I became fully convinced that it was not something that I had just dreamed up.
“You do know what this is, don’t you?” Marvin Ray persisted, pulling on the rubber one more time and letting it reshape itself with what little snap it could still summon up.
I managed to avoid the question, not knowing whether it was worse to give the right answer or the wrong one. I whispered, “Marvin Ray, you’re gonna get yourself in a lot of trouble. You’re not supposed to be showing that thing around out here in the yard.”
Marvin Ray pressed the rubber flat and rolled it up, as if it were a piece of dirty ribbon. He stuffed it in his pocket and said, “I don’t know. We’ll see about that.”
I have, of course, seen a great many condoms since that day on the after-lunch playground. I say this, not simply because I am a gay man, but also because I am a man who goes to the grocery store, a man who goes to the drug store, a man who goes to convenience markets, a man who, from time to time, has been known to pick up a magazine. I say this because I am amazed to think that, scarcely middle-aged though I may be, I was born into a world where rubbers could only be bought in vending machines in truckstops. Now I live in a world where Ripple-Tickle Trojans share a shelf with Milk of Magnesia tablets and extra-strength Visine.
I live in a world where it is far too clear that a great many things come in a great many different sizes. Simply by pushing his buggy through a check-out line in the grocery, a man can destroy whatever last trace of mystery he may have left in his life.
It is a sobering experience, indeed, for a man to discover that a trainee cashier named Tamanda has just glanced into his grocery cart, picked up a microphone, and announced, “Aisle 17. Need a price check. Rubbers. You know, the skinny little ones.” It is humbling enough for a man to have to live through that moment, at 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, when everybody in line behind him is a woman buying baby food. Then Tamanda turns back to him and says, “I’m supposed to ask you if you’re sure you wanta get this fruit-flavored kind.”
In such moments, a man longs for the torment of having to edge his way to the back counter of a drugstore, where a druggist with hair in his nose would only dispense condoms to persons who could furnish two forms of I.D. He longs for the days when, if any question was asked, it was, “Now, son, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” He longs for the days when it did not matter what color certain things were, since nobody ever saw them with the lights on. He longs for the days when only an exhibitionist felt the need to buy a 24-count box of prophylactics. He longs for the days before there was a person named Tamanda asking, “You got a coupon to go with that?”
There was, after all, something simple and fine and sordid about Marvin Ray Luster and his one little stretched-out condom. There was something worthwhile in the terror of discovering that your innermost thoughtsthe thoughts hadn’t even been fully formed yethad already been figured out by a kid who could not even do simple arithmetic. There was something to be said for having to whisper, at least about a few things. But, then, I am a man who still hides his rubbers at the bottom of the grocery basket, underneath the New York Times and the jumbo box of raisin bran.
For the life of me, I cannot think what kids whisper about on the playground these days. I hate to imagine what they bring to Show and Tell.