From Sex, Drugs & Spiritual Enlightenment (but mostly the first two)
Chapter One: Sex on the Beach
“I see my sign,” I said, gazing up at specks of illumination in the dark expanse.
I heard Peter take a long, slow drag. I glanced over as he plucked the half-burned joint from his full lips, which he pressed together to hold in the smoke. Curly blond locks framed the most striking feature of a chiseled visage: his neon blue eyes. I don’t know if they really were a window to his soul, but they sure had proven capable of opening doors. And legs.
I fumbled the joint slightly when he passed it to me—already kinda buzzed—as I turned it around between my fingers. I brought the end toward my mouth, which I wiped with the back of my other hand, twisting my wrist at the last second to avoid giving myself a beer facial. I slid the rolled-up paper between my puckered lips. Dry as a bone. Peter was a pro.
I was merely a pretender. An imposter. At least that’s how I usually felt. I took a quick hit and held it in for what seemed like an eternity, concentrating on the sound of waves rolling ashore to distract me from my burning lungs. I snuck a glance at Peter.
He finally blew out a long stream of smoke. “Whaddaya mean?” he asked.
I exhaled in one big puff and pointed to a cluster of stars. “There. Virgo.”
“Right,” he said with a smirk. “The Virgin.”
I rolled my eyes, mostly at his everlasting affection for the worn-out joke, but partly at my embarrassment that for me—nearly eighteen years alive in the summer of ’85—it was still a valid jibe. Sort of.
Peter chugged the final gulps of his beer, his Adam’s apple pulsing. He crushed the can inside a fist and flung it aside. It landed near the pair of discarded cans—one crushed, one not—from our first round. He yanked one of two remaining cans from a six-pack yoke and dangled the last attached can toward me.
I shook the one in my hand so its contents sloshed against the sides.
“Getting warm, Madonna,” he said as he let the full can drop. He sang “touched for the very first time” in his best girly voice, then cracked his fresh beer and sipped. He motioned for me to return the joint.
I passed it back and finished my tepid beer in a series of big swallows. I lobbed the intact empty toward the pile. I held the last full can down in the sand and worked the six-pack yoke from around it. I tugged on each of the plastic rings until they stretched and, after the synthetic material had turned from clear to opaque, finally snapped.
“Birds get all tangled in them,” I answered Peter’s quizzical stare.
He shook his head and blew smoke at me. I waved it away and finished snapping rings.
“Can you see me up there?” asked Peter out of the blue, his eyes squinting above us.
“Look south and east,” I replied. I tossed the dismantled six-pack yoke in the direction of the empty cans, then pointed down and left. “That bright one with the reddish tint, Antares, that’s near the head. The tail curls up just above the horizon.”
“Beware the Scorpion’s sting!” he exclaimed as he stubbed out the roach on my forearm. The random act of aggression was normal behavior for him, if not astrologically predetermined.
“Asshole!” I cried, and launched myself at him. He had thirty pounds on me, but I was scrappy for my size. Or as our wrestling coach put it when naming me varsity co-captain, I had more “fight” in me than a rabid animal. So what if I usually lost? My resolve never wavered.
And I almost never got pinned—the present moment proving an exception, as Peter flipped me onto my back. He straddled my torso, his knees trapping my arms at my sides, and rocked his hips as if humping my sternum while I twisted and kicked beneath him.
“Ooh, baby! You like it rough, huh?” he said. I ceased struggling. He reached for his beer, sipped from it, let out a satisfied “aaah,” and then tilted the can over my mouth.
I opened wide. Liquid splashed off my lips and teeth before he corrected his aim and hit the back of my throat. I felt my gag reflex about to activate.
As suddenly as he’d overpowered me, Peter rolled off me and scrambled to his feet, somehow not spilling a single drop from the can. He brushed sand from his clothes and skin as he peered toward the shoreline. I looked that way and saw a sundress-clad girl about our age wandering—maybe staggering would be more accurate—barefoot along the water’s edge.
“I’ll be back for you,” Peter said as he set down his beer, all business now. “I promise.”
He bounded across the beach. The girl didn’t see him coming until he was practically on top of her. She tried to step around him but stumbled and would’ve fallen had he not put his hands on her waist and steadied her. She appeared to mumble an apology. He said something in response. She laughed. Her alertness seemed to improve as they started walking and chatting. After they’d gone maybe ten yards, she reached up and rested a hand on his shoulder. He slid an arm around her lower back and pulled her close.
I shook my head in disbelief and a touch of admiration. I’d seen the dude work his magic before, but this had to be some kind of record.
Peter led the girl away from the water and across the sand. As they headed into the dunes, he flashed me a confident thumbs-up. I returned the gesture with mock enthusiasm.
Once they disappeared, I popped the top of the last beer, drank deeply, and gazed up at the constellation of Virgo. “The Virgin,” I mused, as a memory from an earlier summer washed ashore in my mind.
I gripped the knob-headed shaft and jerked it back and forth.
On the screen in front of me, an animated frog dodged its way across five lanes of speeding traffic, hopping backwards and forwards and side to side in movements corresponding to my manipulation of the joystick.
I—or rather the frog—reached a median between road and river. I released the control and wiped my palm on my shirt. I took in a breath and then exhaled as I watched turtles and logs stream past. All I had to do was navigate my way across five rows of them to a vacant lily pad on the opposite shore—without being carried off the screen or dumped in the water by a diving turtle or devoured by an alligator masquerading as a log—and I’d be home free.
I inhaled again and ventured ahead, risking the understood but unpredictable dangers for the promise of security waiting on the other side of the rapid current. I hopped along a log and over to a turtle and onto another log. I hopped backwards onto another turtle and then forward onto the end of a new log.
A hand smacked me on the shoulder, causing me to thrust the joystick to the side. Splash went the frog. The console emitted a mournful sound as my avatar transformed into a skull-and-crossbones symbol. Game over.
I scowled up at Mark, more of an acquaintance than a friend.
“Never mind that,” he said. “Ever seen a hooker?”
I suspect the drastic change in my facial expression conveyed I hadn’t. Not in real life anyway.
Mark grinned and nodded and indicated for me to follow. I did so, in almost trance-like oblivion to the flashing lights and ringing chimes all around me.
And then we were standing on the sidewalk around the corner and halfway up the block from the arcade. I smiled at the irony. Here I was, away from home without parental supervision for the first time in my thirteen years of life, having traveled to Kansas City from a small town in Western Massachusetts with a group of older boys—some of them college students—to attend a religious youth conference. And while I was supposed to be in the convention center listening to someone drone on about the moral challenges facing virtuous young Americans like us, I was on the street trying to catch a glimpse of a real, live prostitute. If only I’d known what was next.
The religion, in case you’re wondering, was the Bahá’í Faith, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century in Persia, now known as Iran. As organized religions go, the Bahá’í Faith has a lot to recommend it. There’s no clergy to come between believers and God. It promotes world peace, equality among men and women, and the eradication of racism, poverty, and hunger. In the Bahá’í ideal vision, all humanity forms one big loving family. It has too many prohibitions—alcohol and premarital sex among them—for me. But still, as organized religions go, it’s not bad.
My mother declared her belief in the Faith when I was twelve, about a year after we moved from my native Midwest to New England, where she’d befriended some Bahá’ís in our new neighborhood. I was in Kansas City to make her happy. At least that’s what I thought then. It took me years to recognize I had already—intuitively—started my own search for the sacred.
I gazed out at the urban thoroughfare ahead of me: two lanes in each direction, divided by another one for making left turns, for a total of five. I felt a sudden impulse to dart into the steady flow of vehicles and try to make it to the other side without becoming road kill.
Before I could act, Mark grabbed my arm.
I have no idea why he was in Kansas City. Maybe he wanted to make his parents happy. Maybe, as a light-skinned Black kid from the inner city who’d been adopted by a white Bahá’í couple from the suburbs, he was on an existential quest of his own.
“There,” he said, pointing to an AMC Pacer creeping toward us in the curb lane. “They keep driving around the block … nice and slow.”
I squinted at the approaching car and through the windshield saw two Black women, seemingly in their late twenties or early thirties. “Maybe they’re waiting for someone to come out,” I speculated aloud. “To give them a ride.”
“They wanna give someone a ride all right.”
An anxious laugh withered in my throat as the Pacer stopped along the curb in front of us. The passenger rolled down the window and tilted her cornrow-braided head through the opening.
“You boys looking for some fun?”
Wow, I thought. We’ve been solicited by real, live hookers. All I’d wanted was to see one. Curiosity satisfied, my mind turned to setting the high score at Pac-Man.
“How much?” asked Mark, whose curiosity apparently reached deeper than mine.
“Thirty bucks for a suck and a fuck.”
I realize that sounds like quite a deal. Keep in mind it was 1981. And I wasn’t thinking about how much bang I could get for my dollar. I was trying to think of a legitimate excuse not to go along with Mark’s scheme.
“Most of my money’s back at the hotel,” I said.
“I’ll front you the cash. No—what the hell—I’ll pay for you.”
“Don’t you think it’s kinda late to—”
A honk of the car horn cut me off. When Cornrow lifted her torso through the window and leaned forward, I gawked at her cleavage, unable to take my eyes off her chocolate skin.
“Don’tcha wanna come with us?” she asked.
Mark nodded and held up a finger. “Two of them and one of me,” he said. “You up for it? Or are you a big pussy?”
“Fuck you,” I replied. I marched toward the car.
Cornrow swung the door open.
“She’ll be right back,” reassured the driver, a sweet-voiced and doe-eyed beauty with straightened hair, as I stared across the parking lot toward the entrance of the Denny’s that had swallowed Cornrow a few minutes before. “Aw, shit! Duck down! Duck down!”
As Mark and I scrunched low in the backseat, Straightened Hair nonchalantly adjusted the rearview mirror and touched up her lipstick with the pink tip of the applicator. Watching her, I felt a mix of fear and fascination—then pure fear when a spotlight illuminated her, its beam lingering there momentarily before passing over our heads. I peeked through the hatchback window as a police car exited the lot.
“How old you boys anyway?” asked our chauffeur.
“Eighteen,” replied Mark without hesitation. He shrugged when I gaped at him. He was only fifteen, but he was physically mature for his age, so he might be able to pass.
“Uh huh. How ’bout you?”
Mark shot me an encouraging nod. I took in a breath and focused on deepening my tone.
“I’m, uh … sixteen,” I said, my pubescent vocal chords cracking on the number.
Straightened Hair threw back her head and laughed. Mark tried to fight it for a moment, then joined in. As they shared their mirth, the passenger door opened and Cornrow got in. She held a lidded drink cup in one hand and a thick pile of napkins in the other. She stashed the napkins into the console between the front seats.
“I miss something funny?” asked Cornrow.
Straightened Hair turned and smiled at what I knew was my beet-red face. “Li’l white boy sure cute when he blush. He got a frog in his throat.”