Editor’s Note: Today’s column is to honor this week’s release of the 50th Anniversary Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The magazine’s biggest-selling annual attraction has also deflowered three generations of young men. And so, if you’re a mother to one of those young men, you may just want to stop reading here and click on this HGTV link instead. For the rest of us:
Every boy remembers his first time.
And as a boy, I also learned the most valuable lesson a man can learn from my first time: It always happens kind of unexpectedly — out of the blue. One minute you’re in the doldrums and the day’s got you pinned down on a three count. And then, the mail comes, and your whole life changes.
My first time was in February of 1991 when I was a sophomore in high school. The morning started out like any typical day. I’d rolled out of bed, eaten some cereal, gotten dressed and walked across the street to meet up with my best friend Chris to cut through his yard and across the school’s multi-purpose fields which led directly to my Geometry class.
That morning Chris was having a particularly tough time getting two thirds of a banana unstuck from the Grand Canyon-sized gap between his braces and overlapping gums and didn’t pay me and my blueprints for sneaking into Silence of the Lambs that weekend much mind. Instead, he kept commenting, banana flapping from his face, that “something smells.”
It’s probably the school, I said. He took this at face value because it was widely known throughout the league that our campus, placed in the hinterlands of a developing bedroom community on the edge of ranch lands and close enough to the ocean to be a Galapagos-esque repository for sea fowl guano, smelled like shit.
He nodded and we made our separate ways to class.
It was February and the morning fog hadn’t quite cleared from the fields. I paused for a minute to see the lighthouse spotlight of the math building in the distance, a beacon of hope as far as I was concerned.
For it was there that Amy, a junior and one year my senior, would bounce into class with her impossibly perky boobs that were barely contained by her rolled-up-sleeve t-shirt and signature acid-wash shortalls. I don’t know if she planned it this way, but every morning the copper buttons of the overall snap part would rest perfectly on the peak of her chest. When I squinted hard enough as Mrs. Fryer dimmed the lights (ohhh yeah) and flipped on the overhead projector, I could actually maybe see a shadow of a nipple poke through. It was and still is to this day, the height of eroticism.
I sat down at my desk and started shuffling around. Amy, who sat one seat over and one up to my left, turned around to my buddy Noah, who sat behind her.
“Something smells,” she said.
Noah leaned in to her and took a whiff, “Smells like heaven.”
(I know it’s easy to take creative license when telling stories, especially ones from high school when everything sort of winds up blending into one single tall tale because, well, it’s like being the last really old guy in the old folks home, you can basically tell anyone what you want and nobody’s really there to call you on it. But trust me on this Noah quote. The guy did — and still does — say shit like this …and totally gets away with it. As an aside, he asked her to the Bell Biv Devoe concert later that week and then they went out for like three months, even wearing matching ‘BBD Do Me’ shirts to school that whole time.)
“Yeah,” I piped in, “Something smells.”
Mrs. Fryer explained the hypotenuse or something and my Amy boner went down just in time for the final bell.
I gathered my stuff and headed to Biology class, where something always smelled like a combo of formaldehyde and kids who had PE the prior period. My lab partner Bill often wore an iron-on caricature of some dude jumping off his couch holding an Atari joystick and shoving some kind of snack food into his giant mouth at the same time. The caricature guy’s eyes all glittery and bugging out like a cartoon’s do when they see a pretty girl and make the oooouuuuuuuggggaaaah sound. Beneath the drawing were the puffy-letter words: “Video Gamer” (keep in mind this was about two decades prior to the emergence of the ironic tee). Bill supports his family of four in the present day — making video games.
That day Bill talked with a nasal pitch as he continued to plug his nose throughout class.
“Something smells,” was about all he could muster.
“It always smells,” I said.
“Something smells …worse.”
Break time at my school was watching all my buddies shove Hot Pockets into their grotesque zit-lined and chapped mouths while brazen seagulls dive-bombed underclassmen girls’ big hair. Oh, and senior jock/burnout guys would rev their Camaros and blast Motley Crüe’s “Wild Side” or Metallica’s “One” as loud as it would go as they peeled out to nowhere.
City Sue, the spec-wearing female janitor, who had the best name for a janitor in the history of names and we thought secretly worked for the CIA, would walk by with those trash-picking-up tongs and sneer as she gestured toward us with the dirty prod. Mark, the guy in our class who always lied, said the other day he threw something away but missed and City Sue grabbed him by the balls with her prongs and he almost lost his nuts and didn’t make it back to class in time.
It was a pretty solid 15 minutes all told. This day, however, my buddy Brad, who was already on the varsity basketball team and wore silk shirts on game day, came up to ask me a question but soon turned around.
“Something smells,” he said.
Fourth-period English was the one class I looked forward to. Mr. Butori let me do a puppet show for my final project on Death of a Salesman the first semester and I got an A. I guess my Willy Loman gym sock really stirred something the class as there was an almost contemplative silence over the group during the entire third act.
My daily game with Mr. Butori was I would wear my Starter hat through his threshold and he would come by, swipe it from my head, and throw it onto a nearby shelf where it would land perfectly.
It was his way of enforcing the no-hat rule introduced recently by school with one of those letters home that said hats encouraged gang activity. At the time, the only gang colors that seemed to divide our student body were the brown of Taco Bell purists who still represented our downtown OG adobe location versus the purple of the fast food franchise’s upstarts who repped the new state-of-the-art facility just off the 101 next to the movie theater.
I was a brown.
This day when Butori walked by me to complete our hat ritual, he paused, stuck his nose in the air and moved on.
“Take your hat off please Mr. Pridgen,” he said curtly.
Fifth period PE, I was changing next to Jeff, a good athlete if not a wiry little guy — a wrestler and a straight shooter. He looked at me and said, “Pridgen, you fucking reek. Don’t you ever shower?”
“I shower. I shower at night to save time.”
(I have no idea what time I actually needed to save, but such was my ritual.)
“Well,” he said. “Maybe you might want to shower in the morning too. What is that?”
Jeff leaned in closer and almost buried his nose in my sweatshirt. I wasn’t used to anyone, even my mom, being this close to me, so I kind of leaned back as if he was a hot poker.
“Holy shit. Smell your sweatshirt!”
I took a whiff under my arms. Nothing registered but a distant whisper of something acrid and stingy, like rotting citrus and my uncle’s first apartment.
Jeff touched my shoulder. “Dude, you’re all wet.”
“There was fog this morning. It was moist out.”
He smelled his fingers. “Dude, you have cat piss all over you.”
Then it dawned on me, my beloved Persian cat Sheila, who did make a ritual of peeing on my things every once in awhile, probably because she was jealous that I was around girls like Amy from Geometry all day, was on my bed this morning after I laid out my clothes.
By the time it registered Sheila had made a litter box of my Cal sweatshirt, Jeff had pretty much run down to the office and gotten on the school PA to announce that I’d been walking around all day soaked in piss.
I tore the hoodie off and smelled my Mossimo shirt. Cat pee there too. It had bled all the way down to my skin. I threw the sweatshirt in my PE locker, which I did not open for the rest of the month, till someone, probably City Sue, cleaned it out during Spring Break — and tore off towards home.
It was there, safe, that I saw it. Yesterday’s mail stacked on the counter and my SI hiding beneath a pile of bills. Still raging with embarrassment, I unearthed it and felt a surge run through me. It was a picture of supermodel Ashley Montana (who I assumed was married to Joe or something). She was wearing a white one-piece and a hat old women do in Florida when they’re walking around whatever complex you stick them in. The cover lines said “Shipshape and Seaworthy”. Overall, probably the least sexy cover in the issue’s now 50-year history, but it didn’t matter.
Something inside me was burning and it wasn’t going to go away. I flipped open the magazine and it fell to the first subscription cards. I turned the pages upside down to shake free the annoying bookmarks and flipped it back over to reveal Niki Taylor. Here was this woman, this girl really, who was actually two months younger than me, lying face down in the sand, blue bikini bottoms only! Bare breasts covered in a million tiny salty granules of sand, looking fierce and purposefully into a far off place. And that place was right into my eyes.
I knew I had to have her, right then and there.
I swept off the counter top with the urgency I remember Mickey Rourke having during that one scene in 91/2 Weeks. I spread Niki out, taking all of her in. There she lie before me, waiting next to the fruit bowl and dangerously near the phone cord. I was ready. It was awkward at first, and pinched more than anything, but I assured her we would get through this. After a few minutes, nothing was working and the counter was just low enough that I was uncomfortably hunched over.
My back started to ache.
Determined, I drew in another breath of kitchen smells and distant cat and picked Niki up holding her close. This too also became cumbersome and her face would flop out of view, leaving me to stare into the crack of the magazine at the ocean background and vastness beyond the blue. I needed eye contact if we were to share in this moment. Finally, out of the corner of my eye, I spied my mom’s plexiglass cookbook holder. Perfect.
I rushed over and threw the cookbook into the sink and put Niki in there, now perfectly positioned at eye level and hand’s free. Her stare so real it went right through my urine-soaked shirt and pierced my heart. It was then and there my lazy eye met the mole on the left corner of her mouth and I made my way down each and every perfectly sand-covered inch of her body and then back up to her raw and waiting and knowing eyes and lips.
It lasted 30 seconds if it lasted three days. The yellow kitchen tile and maple cabinets swirled around me and suddenly we were dizzy and together. I slumped over, taking Niki out of her plastic cookbook sheath and burying her into my sunken chest of pungent feline odor. Breathing slowed now. It was just the two of us there, under the buzzing florescent light. Our bond, real and lasting. Uninterrupted bliss amongst aging bananas and a half-eaten sheet of brownies …until I heard approaching footsteps tromping up the outside stairs.
I peeked around the corner to see Chris and my other best friend Paul trudging up the walk. Quickly I gathered myself and lunged for the sink, grabbing the sponge for a five-second counter scrub.
I shut the magazine, collected the rest of the mail from the ground and threw it on top, spreading it with purposeful randomness. I emerged at the top of the staircase wearing a smoking jacket and puffing on a pipe. My two cohorts let themselves in.
“We heard at lunch your cat pissed all over you,” Paul said. “Awesome. You are such an idiot. Let’s play Super Tecmo.”
I gestured them in and they sashayed through the kitchen.
“Holy shit,” Paul said as he brushed by the still very Shipshape and Seaworthy Ashley Montana, “the Swimsuit Issue. Have you looked through this yet?”
Photo credit: Sports Illustrated