Before I explain what happened, it’s important that you understand the circumstances. I was young. Probably in the fourth grade. Maybe the fifth. In any case, I don’t think I had my Catholic grade school sex-ed class yet, where the boys snickered and the girls blushed. Where we read Changes, a carefully-worded booklet about puberty, complete with drawings. Where Mr. G., our principal, took the boys to the multipurpose room and talked about penises and nocturnal emissions and pubic hair. And where the girls sat in a circle with our teacher Mrs. K. and talked about periods and pregnancy and maxi pads.
It was pretty gross.
It’s also important to know that before that class, I had some misunderstandings.
For example, in the second or third grade, one of my classmates asked me if I was a virgin. Only the Virgin Mary could be a virgin and I certainly wasn’t the Virgin Mary. I told him no. When he made fun of me, I tried to play it cool and said, “Oh, I thought you were asking me if I was the Virgin Mary. I’m not the Virgin Mary! But, yeah, of course I am a virgin.” Note to self: find out what virgin means.
It is also important to understand that I was the oldest kid in the house at the time, so I lacked the advantage of a big sister teaching me the practical ways of the world. And I was easily embarrassed. Like the time when I got my first period, my mom called friends and family to let them know. “Hi Pat. Guess what? Well, I just wanted to call to let you know that Erika has become a woman. Yep. Her first period. I know. My baby’s growing up. Yeah, well she didn’t want to tell me, but I figured it out, and—Erika, quit rolling your eyes at me—she’s pretty embarrassed that I’m even telling people, but I keep telling her that this is a special thing. Okay. Yep. Talk to you later!”
And even if my timeline is off and I already had the Catholic-sanctioned sex-ed class when this happened, I was naive. The class may have improved my understanding of virginity, but I still misused or misunderstood some of the lingo.
Like when I dried my hair with a hair dryer, I thought I was was giving myself a blow job.
Or how in basketball and volleyball we had chants about our school mascot (“We are the Trojans! The mighty, mighty Trojans!”) and the older boys laughed.
I didn’t get the joke.
Also, I thought sewer covers were called “asshole covers”.
To understand why this happened, it is also important that I explain some of the novelty items that were around at the time: charms and charm necklaces, Rubik’s Cubes, Lisa Frank stickers, super balls, variations of Pet Rocks, Sea Moneys, those stretchy hand thingies, and sticky balls that would walk down a wall. And like most children, I loved my novelties.
Don’t forget Mexican Jumping Beans. They were kept in small containers on the checkout counter. I liked them until I found out they were moth larva.
There was practically a new novelty every week. It was hard to keep up.
Well, one day—when I was nine or ten or maybe a little older, maybe before the Catholic sex-ed class or perhaps a little bit after, around the same time that Mom might as well have rented a billboard in my town announcing my first menses—my dad and I went to our local, family-owned pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. This was more than a pharmacy; not only did they have prescription drugs and over-the-counter items, they had stickers! King size candy bars! Skittles! Charms! Sticky thingies! Teen Beat! Precious Moments! Mexican Jumping Beans! And many other novelties at the checkout counter to capture a child’s attention.
As we waited for the prescriptions, I admired all of the cool things the pharmacy checkout counter had to offer. I grabbed one of the novelties and looked at the front of the box.
“Ooooh, cool. Dad, I want this.”
“No, you don’t.”
“No, Dad, this is cool.”
“Erika. Put it down.”
“Just put it down, please.” Dad gave me the look.
“Why? What’s the matter?”
The pharmacist paused his pill-counting and looked up at us from behind the pharmacy station.
“Just do it, please.” Dad begged. “Those aren’t what you think they are.”
I turned the box over. “Oh. No.”
I dawned on me that the cartoon woman was looking at the cartoon man’s penis.
“Oh. Sorry Dad,” I whispered. My face burned with embarrassment. I still wasn’t quite sure what a condom was, but I knew it had to do with sex. And sex was just…gross. I returned the novelty to its proper location and pretended to browse the contact lens solutions and eye drops that were displayed next to the counter.
The pharmacist came to the counter and looked at Dad. “Yup, I think we need to move those.”
And sure enough, the next time we went to the pharmacy, The Pet Rubbers were not on the checkout counter.
About five or six years later, when I was 15, I started working at that same pharmacy as a cashier, and later as a pharmacy tech. I rang up prescriptions, printed labels, and counted pills alongside the same pharmacist that witnessed the ordeal.
One day, I had to rearrange the condom section, which was located in the family planning and feminine hygiene aisle. I was uncomfortable. I spent the whole shift surrounded by tampons and maxi pads and feminine washes and douche bags and pregnancy tests and condoms. Gross.
And yet, I was relieved. There were no Pet Rubbers.
But there were plenty of Trojans.
And I finally understood the joke.