Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
5491 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Never Thirteen

by Lee Martin

The first girl I kiss is a girl named Beth. It’s 1969, and we’re thirteen, about to graduate from the eighth grade. It’s spring in Oak Forest. Yankee Woods, the forest preserve that sprawls south from 159th Street to Tinley Park and beyond, is green. The snow cover has melted from the grass; winter’s bare trees are in full leaf.

In a few weeks, my mother and father and I will move back to southern Illinois for good, my mother retiring after thirty-eight years of teaching, the last six in Oak Forest. But now I’m not thinking about any of that because Beth has asked me to walk her home—at least partway, she says. At least as far as Yankee Woods, she says. At least as far as that. That is, she says, if I want to. Do I want to? Boy, howdy!

We’ve been boyfriend and girlfriend since mid-winter—I, a varsity basketball player, she a varsity cheerleader—which means we’ve sat together in the bleachers, holding hands during the junior varsity games and on dark buses, traveling home from away games, her head laid on my shoulder, my arm around her. She’s taught me two ways of holding hands—palm to palm, or fingers interlaced—and we’ve practiced each, our hands inseparable for long periods of time even though they’ve ached and sweated, neither of us wanting to be the first to break the grasp. We’ve enjoyed this cuddling, this snuggling, this cooing and wooing.

But we haven’t kissed; we haven’t been as bold as that. And I haven’t walked Beth home; the two of us have never been alone. In a forest preserve. On a path snaking back through the woods. Just the two of us. We’ve never been thirteen.

This is the year when night after night I wake from wet dreams, and I know from watching a film in health class that this is the time when “A Boy Becomes a Man.” Thanks to Arbor Park School District 145 and to a birds and bees chat with my father, I’m no longer sexually ignorant. But I’ve had nary an erotic thought about Beth. I’ve delighted in the scent of her perfume—something strong and fruity—the backward slant of her handwriting, the way she signs her notes to me—Forever Yours—followed by what has become the official signet of couples in our school: an “S” turned on its side, two short lines drawn through its middle.

These are our sweet beginnings, our first leanings toward love.

That afternoon in Yankee Woods, we stop on the trail, and there in the grove of trees, there in the dark, cool shade, she asks me whether I’ve ever kissed a girl, and I’m so thankful for this moment—even now I remember with immense gratitude how she reached out and touched me lightly on my forearm as if to say, it’s all right, whoever you are, it’s okay—that I can do nothing but tell her the truth, that I am practically without experience; outside of a chaste kiss from my mother, my lips are virgin lips.

“It’s not hard,” she says, and she steps closer. She gives me a shy smile. Her hair is thick and blond and cut short, ala Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, and like Nellie, Beth is kind and spirited, the girl-next-door and everyone’s friend, eager to be swept away by love. I can still see her in her white oxford shirt, her blue culottes, her white sandals, her books cradled in the crook of her left arm. She lifts her chin, tilts her head to the side and waits for me to take my cue.

But I, alas, am no Ezio Pinza. I’m a shy boy who happens to be a skilled basketball player, and for that reason alone I have the opportunity to be standing in Yankee Woods, a girl like Beth waiting for me to kiss her.

And I can’t bring myself to do it.

“Don’t you want to?” she says.

“Well, sure,” I say. “I guess.”

I don’t tell her about all the times I’ve practiced. I’ve kissed my hand, a mirror, my pillow. And I don’t tell her about the time I couldn’t stand the curiosity anymore—what would it feel like?—and asked my mother to kiss me, which she had never before, at least to my memory, done. She kissed me on the lips, and I remember that her own were dry and tightly pressed together, and I came away, embarrassed, knowing that I had forced her to demonstrate an affection that she felt, I have no doubt, but also one that was uncomfortable for her to display, being the timid, reserved, come-to-love-late-in-life sort that she was. In her dry, rigid kiss, I felt her years of living on the outer edges of the world—preparing her students’ lessons while other women tucked their children into bed, sitting through Gone With the Wind, all four hours of it, alone at the Arcadia Theater while around her young couples held hands in the dark. “There was an intermission,” she would say years later, and she would say it proudly, her one claim to romance from those long years of spinsterhood.

I don’t want my mother’s life to be mine. I don’t want to be old, not at thirteen. I don’t want to be unkissed.

“What about my nose?” I say to Beth. “Where do I put my nose?”

I’m serious. It’s been a big concern of mine since seeing an episode on The Patty Duke Show where Patty and a boy kept bumping noses when they kissed. I’m afraid that Beth will laugh at me, but she doesn’t. She explains patiently that she will tip her head to her right, and I will tip mine to my right, and everything will be fine.

“Ready?” she says.

“All right,” I tell her.

And it happens. The next thing I know we’re kissing, and unlike the time when my mother kissed me and I came away wondering what the big deal was, I’m fairly well loose-kneed with the absolute thrill of Beth’s lips on mine.

When we finish, I ask her whether I did it right. This is how comfortable I feel with her, how safe. This is how much I trust her as my guide through this uncharted territory.

“Relax your lips,” she says. “Don’t hold them together so tight.”

I feel a dagger piercing my heart, an anger constricting my throat. I’ve failed at this most important, most essential juncture in my life, and I’ll be doomed to years of loneliness. People will take one look at me and know the truth; they’ll whisper it among themselves: “Doesn’t know how to kiss.”

But then, before I can move away from her, Beth kisses me again, and because she catches me off guard—because I have no time to worry about my performance—this kiss is all response, my lips forming themselves to hers. This kiss is soft, warm, unhurried, the kiss I’ve been needing since the first time my father whipped me with his belt and my mother did nothing to stop him.

It’s been our habit as long as I can remember, these whippings. My father is quick to anger, and I’m not exactly blameless. I’m often stubborn, defiant, easily frustrated, full of sass. I’m often too much like him. People will tell me, long after he’s dead, that there was a time when he was good-natured and agreeable, and although there are glimpses of this man as my father ages, for the most part he’s brittle and full of temper. I’m clueless to what I now know, the fact that he spent the last twenty-six years of his life trying to relearn who he had been before the farming accident that cost him his hands and changed him forever.

By the time I’m thirteen, I can’t remember ever seeing my parents touch with affection. They don’t hug, don’t kiss. There are no flirtatious caresses or pats as I sometimes witness between my friends’ much younger parents. To me, my mother and father are old and humdrum. There is nothing sensuous about them, nothing voluptuous. They have no spice, no juice, no ardor or thrill.

Once in winter, I saw a young man in Yankee Woods sitting on top of a picnic table, his face wrapped with bandages, two holes left for his eyes. My father was driving us through on a Sunday, and suddenly there was the young man just sitting there, a mummy in the cold. Now, after Beth kisses me this second time, I’m thinking of that man, how frail and alone he looked, how even then I hoped that he had someone in his life to love him.

“Better,” Beth says. “We’ll keep practicing.” Then she takes my hand, and we walk on through the forest, and I feel blessed, not knowing that she is only the first in a line of girls, the ones that I hope will save me from my father’s rage, my mother’s meek reserve, and show me how to love.


The Chicago-land forest preserves are where people go when they have something to hide. The police find bodies there; they find women who have been raped and strangled, women with their throats cut or with gunshot wounds to their heads. Each morning, my father buys a Sun-Times from Tony’s Corner Store, and I catch glimpses of headlines:




I know there’s a nighttime Yankee Woods, perverse and dangerous. I know what men are capable of doing. I was ten the summer that Richard Speck broke into a student nurses’ dormitory and killed eight young women. I know there’s a darker side to those first sweet kisses that Beth and I share, but for the time being, that side, one driven by lust and greed, is foreign to me. I ask nothing of her, make no demands. Our hands come together on our walks through Yankee Woods; we stop and kiss. All this is done without prompting and through mutual consent.

I suppose I should be embarrassed now—how sentimental I am, going on and on about a first kiss—but I can’t manage it. When I look at that boy and girl, kissing in the dark shade, walking out into bright sunlight, I feel a great tenderness for them and the affection that they share. They will never again be this age, never again be this innocent. They’re still children, really, but just barely, and because I know now everything they have to lose, I want them to linger in the cool woods forever, to always be just that age. All the boy wants is to be in this place with this girl, and if they end up kissing, that’s fine, and if they don’t, that’s fine, too. The girl feels completely safe to be alone with him, hidden in these woods where sometimes horrible things happen to women.

One evening, I come home from Yankee Woods and find my father and mother in the kitchen of our one-bedroom apartment. My mother is at the stove frying fish sticks for our supper. The school day done, she’s changed into a cotton house dress and taken off her necklace and clip-on earrings. She’s removed her stockings, and her bare calves are spidery with varicose veins. She’s fifty-nine years old. She stands with one hand on her hip, a spatula in her other hand, her back already starting to curve into the stoop that will continue to pull her forward into her old age. Our apartment smells of fish; the hot grease pops and splatters.

My father is sitting at the kitchen table, his reading glasses slipped down on his nose, the point of one hook just beginning to unfurl the centerfold of a Playboy magazine. For an instant, before he raises his head and sees me, I catch a glimpse of airbrushed flesh—a golden and naked hip, marked only by the white tan line a bikini bottom has left. I’ve never in my life seen such a sight, and I’m absolutely stunned because I’ve seen it now in our kitchen where my mother is frying fish and my father is trying to act as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

“What’s that?” I say, pointing to the magazine, even though I know darned well what it is. My father tries to shield the glossy cover with his arm, but I can see a blond-haired woman in a football jersey, its hem rising up on her naked legs. It’s oddly delicious for me to catch my father peeking at naked women; though he’s always been a gruff man, coarse and often vulgar with language, this is the first time that I’ve seen him demonstrate any sexual curiosity. He’s guilty, and he knows it. I’ve got him with the goods.

He tries to shift the focus of blame to me. “You’re late,” he says.

But I won’t let him off the hook. “It’s a Playboy,” I announce. “You’re looking at a Playboy.”

My mother bangs her spatula against the rim of the frying pan. “He bought it at the Pick ’n Save.” Her voice is tight, barely reigning in her disgust. “Honestly. The idea.”

Now I’m caught between feeling a wink-wink camaraderie with my father and a miserable embarrassment because this is all happening—this voyeurism—in the company of my mother, a demure woman who must be appalled that her husband would bring this magazine into her home and display it there in her kitchen. Even now, it’s hard for me to imagine what my father must have been thinking. He knew as well as I how decorous my mother was, a woman in her fifties by the time the sexual revolution hit, a woman who had spent the first forty-one years of her life living at home with her parents. I have a photograph of her as a young woman about to graduate from high school in 1928. She’s wearing a simple dress—its blouse long-sleeved and loose-fitting—adorned with no fur collar, beads, or bows like the dresses of her classmates. She wears no necklace or brooch or lace. Her hair isn’t marcelled. In fact, she’s wearing a hairnet, its black, elastic band visible on her forehead. Her hands are folded in her lap. She tips her head down, her eyes barely meeting the camera’s lens. This is the way I think of my mother; this is the girl I imagine she always thought she was—shy and plain. I doubt that she ever believed she was pretty even though her face had delicately drawn features, and her neck was long and slender, and her skin was smooth and turned a golden brown in summer.

How demeaned she must feel this evening in our kitchen while my father looks at naked young women. I’ve just come from one of my sweet walks through Yankee Woods with Beth, and I stand there feeling something I’m unaccustomed to feeling after leaving her—aroused and ashamed. Though I don’t know it, then, I’m at one of those points beyond which life will be different for me. I can’t say it’s my father’s fault—already, my dreams have turned erotic beyond my control—but it’s the fact that he brought that Playboy into our home that lures me toward the carnal and the lewd. It’s there on the table the way the Sun-Timesmight be or the Farmer’s Almanac that my father always consults before planting his garden. It’s right there, and because I’ve seen him looking at it, I believe that I have rights to it, too. But my mother is frying those fish, and soon we’ll all sit around our kitchen table and have to face one another. As much as I want to be able to do that without shame, I’m drawn by something stronger—call it curiosity or lust—and I can’t turn away from it. I’m at the end of innocence. This is what happens to boys; they discover the world of the body, and after that, they are never the same around women.

“I want to see it,” I say to my father.

“You don’t have any business with it,” he tells me.

“You were looking at it.” I move closer to the table. “I want to see it, too.”

I pick up the magazine, barely able to believe that I’m holding it in my hands. Already, I’m moving toward my room. My mother turns from the stove, and her eyes meet mine. I see the hurt in them, the disappointment, the anger.

“You’re surely not,” she says, and at first I’m not sure whether she’s saying this to me or to my father.

I wait for him to erupt in anger. I listen for the sound I know so well: the jangle of his belt buckle as he unfastens it, the whish the belt makes as he pulls it from his trousers’ loops. But all I hear is the fish frying and my father’s sigh.

“I don’t suppose it’ll hurt him,” he says, and I go to my room and close my door.


The next day, the last day of school, I walk with Beth through Yankee Woods and beyond, all the way to her house. It’s not yet noon—school has dismissed early—and everything feels a little strange to me, not only because it’s mid-morning, and we’re out of school but also because in a few days my parents and I will be back in southern Illinois, and come fall, instead of returning to Oak Forest as we have the past six years, we’ll stay downstate. What I’ve known is coming really sinks in on this morning. I clutch Beth’s hand more tightly, knowing that our time together is short. Of course, we’ve already made our promises to write faithfully, and we’ve said that when we turn sixteen and have our driver’s licenses, we’ll make the five-hour trips south or north to see each other. We’ve pledged our love forever the way kids do when they have no idea of the different people they’ll become. By the time we make this walk through Yankee Woods, we carry something new between us—an urgency that we don’t quite know how to handle. We know that time is precious, that soon we’ll be apart, and all we can do is rely on what we’ve picked up from movies and television programs about doomed lovers. We speak in cliches: “You’re the only one for me.” “I love you more than life itself.” “I don’t care how long we have to wait.” Such maudlin, theatrical mewling, and yet I have no doubt, that at the time we say these things, we’re sincere. It’s not our fault that we’re in a foreign land, desperately trying to learn the language, fumbling for words to say how much we mean to each other.

At Beth’s house, her mother greets me with reserve. It’s the first time we’ve met, and it’s clear that she’s suspicious. This is the beginning, she must be thinking, imagining all the boys who will come, intent on defiling her daughter. But this isn’t my plan at all. I’m there because soon I’ll be far away, and I want every minute with Beth that I can have. Perhaps, too, I sense that I’ll need to carry with me the memory of these days: the way the house is so inviting in its midmorning quiet (the refrigerator hums in the kitchen, a breeze lifts the curtain at the window), and downstairs in the walkout basement family room the air is cool, and Beth and I, finally hidden from her mother, hug for a very long time, not saying a word, just holding on, trying to defy time.

Finally, we hear her mother coming down the stairs, and we move apart. I’m stunned by how quickly we do this, how we erase all sign of our bodies meeting. Beth moves to the stereo and puts on a record; I sit on the couch and fold my hands in my lap. Although I’ve imagined our affections have always been nonsexual, it’s clear now that we know to be careful; perhaps we’ve learned that we have something to protect from the wary eyes of adults, and it’s something precious, something the grownups around us once had and then lost. It’s that feeling—that head-over-heels, pie-in-the-sky, stars-in-your-eyes, catch-me-I’m falling-in-love feeling—and if it’s puppy love so be it. It’s still sweet, and at least for the time, it’s ours. If we’re ashamed, it’s not because we feel guilty; if anything, we’re embarrassed because we don’t think our mothers and fathers are worthy of bearing witness to such romance. If they look on us, we’ll lose it; they’ll steal it away with their hunger, and then how will we ever get it back?

Beth’s mother is a tall woman, and though she isn’t heavy, from the way she moves, her body appears to burden her. Maybe she’s worn down from spending too many days alone in her house while her children are in school and her husband is at work. I won’t claim to know her story. But still I remember her languid droop as she comes down the stairs, and the humorless look on her face.

“I just wondered what you were doing,” she says.

The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” is playing on the stereo, and the room fills with the song’s roll of drums, its blare of horns, its rollicking keyboard notes. Such an upbeat tune about love gone sour.

“Mother,” Beth says with a sigh. She has one hand on her hip, and she cocks her head to the side and stares wide-eyed at her mother, trying to show her, without saying it, how desperately she wants her gone. “We’re listening to records,” Beth says, and, again, she sighs.

Mrs. Sims picks up her cue, understanding that she’s ventured into territory where she isn’t welcome. She starts back up the stairs. Then, when she’s halfway up, she stops and turns to look down on us.

“That’s a snappy song,” she says. “That’s something you could dance to.”

Her voice is so sad and full of yearning. I imagine now that she may have been wishing that she could linger awhile in the cool basement, listening to the music, looking at her daughter who, of course, must have been a reminder of a younger version of herself, one she could recall but never quite recover. Perhaps, like Beth, her nickname was “Toots.” Perhaps she wrote the name of her boyfriend over and over on the covers of her notebooks and thought she would “just die” if something happened to keep them apart.

Beth lifts the tone arm from the record. A faint crackle dies off in the speakers, and then there is only the electric hum of the turntable as it revolves. She takes my hand—fingers interlaced—and squeezes it more tightly than I can ever remember her doing. She leans over and kisses me on the lips, and I’m horrified because her mother is watching and now what has always been private between Beth and me is on display, performed with an intent I don’t have time or experience to understand.

“Come on,” she says, and starts leading me to the French doors that open from the walkout basement to the patio.

“Where are you going?” Mrs. Sims calls from the stairs. Her voice has lost its dreamy, melancholic leisure. Her question is snappish and suspicious.

“Outside,” Beth calls over her shoulder, as she opens the French doors, and we step out into the warm sunlight.

“It’s almost lunchtime,” Mrs. Sims says. “Beth, do you hear me? Beth, don’t go too far.”


In the backyard, toward the rear of the lot, a stack of firewood is enough to shield us from view. We sit on the ground, which is still damp from the spring thaw, and Beth raises my arm and drapes it around her shoulder. She snuggles in close, her hand flat on my chest, and lifts her face to me. She’s crying, her cheeks damp with tears, and, when we kiss, I can feel how hot her face is, and I can’t help but think of all the times my father has left me sobbing, my legs and arms striped from the lashes of his belt.

Suddenly, I’m holding Beth as tightly as I can. I close my eyes and rock her. Neither of us speaks. This moment is more profound and heartfelt than anything we’ve said to each other since we knew I would soon be moving away. We have no words for what we feel, only our bodies pressing together, and though I have no idea what it means to love a woman, I’ve never felt as close to anyone as I do in this moment. I imagine now that every embrace I’ve ever wanted from my father, my mother, myself, is contained in this hug I’m giving Beth. I want us to stay this way for a very long time—sweetly joined and protected, far away from Mrs. Sims and her languor and her resentment and her mourning.

Then, I feel something I’ve never felt in Beth’s presence, and I know, from the diagram in “When a Boy Becomes a Man,” that my penis is filling with blood and soon, like the penis drawing in the film, I will be erect, flying at full staff, periscope up, ahoy!

I haven’t at all anticipated this happening, and I don’t know how to feel about it now that it has. Part of me is caught up in the excitement, and part of me is ashamed and wants it to stop. But that’s impossible. Something about the closeness of our bodies, and more than that, the fervor of our embrace, foils all my attempts to lower the mainsail and drop anchor. Suddenly, to complicate matters, images from my father’s Playboy creep into my mind, and to my horror, a few drops of semen leak from me. I glance down at my thigh and see the quarter-sized stain on my chinos. I don’t want Beth to see this—I don’t want to see it now—because I want this moment to be pure and without tarnish, something golden to last me a long time. But it can never be that because there are men like Richard Speck who would have their desire turn perverse and violent. There are men like my father who would leaf through a Playboy magazine in the company of my timid, virtuous mother. I don’t understand now, anymore than I did then, the fine line between desire and lust. The truth is the beautiful and the ugly bleed together; the distance between the two is never as wide as we’d like to think. Perhaps there are just men. Period. Even me—sitting there in Beth’s backyard, holding her, as close to knowing love as I’ve ever been, and still ashamed because my body has announced how base my instincts can be.

I hear the French doors open and then Mrs. Sims calling Beth to lunch. Beth breaks away from me and stands, and I have no choice but to do the same. I can barely look at her. I want to hold her again, but I’m afraid that if I do, she’ll feel the dampness on my chinos and then what will she think of me, this shy boy who has walked her home all those afternoons through the forest preserve.

If she notices the stain on my trousers, she doesn’t say anything about it, and for that, I’ve always been grateful. She puts her hand on my forearm, the way she did that first time in Yankee Woods when she asked me whether I’d ever kissed a girl.

“I’ll write,” she says to me in a whisper. “You, too.”

Then she runs across the yard to the house where her mother waits. When she’s inside, I walk away, disappearing into Yankee Woods once more, this time alone.


When I get home, my mother and father are in the bathroom, the door closed, and I know from the way my father says in a quiet voice, “be careful on my throat,” that my mother is shaving him. I can hear the safety razor scraping over his whiskers, the swish of water as my mother rinses the razor, and the clacking sound it makes as she taps it on the edge of the sink.

I stand in the hallway, trying not to make a sound, something about my parents’ cooperation captivating me. I’m listening to them; I’m eavesdropping, and suddenly I feel guilty for keeping my presence hidden and unannounced.

One night, a few years earlier, my father caught a man peeping in our window. I had already gone to bed and didn’t know anything about what had happened until much later when I overheard my father and mother talking about that night. I was astonished. I couldn’t quite imagine that a strange man had stood at our kitchen window staring in. I wondered what he had found to interest him, to make him stand there in the dark, watching through the archway that led from our kitchen to our living room, my aging parents moving through the light, readying themselves for bed. They slept on a sleeper sofa in the living room. Now I imagine my mother gently lifting the eyeglasses from my father’s face, unbuttoning his shirt, helping him slip his arms from the flesh-colored plastic holsters, the hooks screwed into their ends. She would have raised the canvas harness from his shoulders and draped the hooks over a straight backed chair. She would have unpinned the cotton arm socks from his tee-shirt sleeves and rolled the socks down his stumps. I remember how naked those stumps were after being encased all day in their holsters. I remember the white flesh and how it embarrassed me, a sight not meant for my eyes.

Perhaps it was this that kept the Peeping Tom at our window—those naked stumps and the intimacy my mother and father shared, not the intimacy of lovers but a tenderness and familiarity that became theirs because of my father’s accident. So maybe it was my mother’s delicate movements as she undressed my maimed father that captivated, as it does me now, the voyeur, and made him feel the sensuality that was so privately theirs; I wonder whether they themselves were even aware of it. I had always thought them sexless, without passion, until now when I stand at the window with the Peeping Tom and realize that all along their lovemaking had been present in the gentle way my mother touched my father when she undressed him, when she held a drinking glass so he could take it in his hook, when she shampooed and combed his hair. I remember the way he gave himself over to her ministering, his frequently gruff voice going soft, his arms, which could jerk so often with bluster and fury, relaxing. I can never fully know the accommodations they had to make after my father lost his hands, but I can remember their murmurs behind closed doors—the sound as lulling as the cooing of mourning doves, as soothing as the rill of a brook hidden in a deep woods, a private code between them—and know that all the while I thought them impotent and numb they were making love each day right before my eyes, and I was too blind to see it; I was too busy being young.

Until the afternoon when I stand in the hallway and listen to them in the bathroom.

“Turn your head this way,” my mother says, and I know my father is doing as she asks. How can he not? He depends on her for so much, and she gives it without complaint.

“That’s it,” he says. “Right there.”

Then they aren’t talking. I listen to the sounds their bodies make as they move: the harness of my father’s hooks squeaking as he turns his head and shoulders, my mother’s soft-soled shoes sliding over the tile floor, the gentle whisk of her dress as it brushes across my father’s twill trousers.

I listen to their dance, and I think about Beth and the way we clung to each other behind the wood pile. Suddenly, in the presence of my parents’ gentle and selfless choreography, my future opens, and it terrifies me with its broad expanse of time, its uncertain possibilities. I step into my adult life, wondering how long I’ll need to live, how much I’ll need to lose, to learn to love like this.

—From the memoir, Such a Life, University of Nebraska Press (March 2012)

SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Lee Martin

has published three memoirs, most recently, Such a Life. He is also the author of four novels, including Break the Skin and The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He teaches in the MFA program at The Ohio State University.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury