I’m pretty sure the first time I consciously saw a pair of breasts was in Nevada on a television. I was probably about twelve. The viewing took place during a period of banishment when I was exiled to my grandparent’s place in McDermitt.
If you live in the northwest and have driven to southern California, you have been to McDermitt. You might have used the restroom at the “Quality Grocery,” or maybe you lunched at the “Say When Cafe and Casino.” But you probably just drove through, only registering the town as a momentary relief from the monotonous Nevada highway system.
One of the most valuable concepts I have learned as an undergrad was the idea of social capital. If you don’t know, it is the way social-scientists measure trust in a community. Social capital is built by people getting together, getting to know each other; basic things like bowling and picnics that strengthen the bonds between neighbors. In the west, Nevada is the state with the lowest social capital. Spending time in McDermitt made that obvious.
People are not nice there. People don’t smile, and they are not friendly. And they don’t care if kids watch movies with naked women in them.
I should make it clear that my grandparents were not the people responsible for that first (small) step towards adulthood. The blame lays with the boys I was force to play with for an evening while my grandparents went to a church meeting (which at the time made me mad; I had been sitting through church meetings since I was an infant, and I would have much rather done that then played with a bunch of strange ratty kids; in the end my encounter with vulgarity, while horrifying, also gave me the vindication that I was right).
The things I hated about McDermitt were the people and the work I was forced to do there. It was always hard work, and it was always pretty pointless. It seemed like mostly filler for my grandpa’s retirement. The only saving grace was the solitude. I liked going out, squeezing under a cow-fence, and making my way into the sage filled desert. I loved it when I lost sight of the house and I was alone in the wilderness. The smell of the sage brush after a rain always felt so fresh in my nose. And I liked shooting my grandpa’s pellet gun.
On the same visit as the breasts I shot a blackbird with the pellet gun. Besides a few fish and some insects, it is the only creature I have killed. I was shooting cans off a fence, but I caught sight of the bird in the corner of my eye, and without thinking I turned and fired.
The bird fell to the ground like a rock, but it wasn’t dead. It was wriggling. I was horrified. I stomped on it, taking its head off. It was one of those moments when I realized something about reality and life. I would kill an animal for food if I needed to. I’m not a vegetarian and I try not to be a hypocrite. I wouldn’t even question the decision. But I wouldn’t enjoy it. And I don’t think I would kill for pleasure or for thrills.
The breasts belonged to a stripper. Just a walk on role in a movie called “Pecker.” It’s a John Waters movie, so I guess that tells you about the sensibility of the thing. For me, at that time in my life, it was quite shocking (and honestly, rather appalling). I grew up in an evangelical home, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would grow to feel a measure of self-loathing when it comes to sex. But an experience like that doesn’t help.
The first time I saw breasts consciously for real, I told my then girl-friend I thought we were moving too fast. Immediately after I said those words I regretted them, not because I didn’t mean them, but because I felt her shrink away from me. I knew that was the beginning of the end.