Standing in the kitchen of my South Beach condo, I hear in my head what my mom said during my recent visit to California. “Be more vulnerable,” she pleaded while doling out unsolicited dating advice. I break a banana from the bunch on the counter and hastily peel it, shoving it in my mouth as I think of my defense.
Is my mother really asking me to expose myself to harm? Showing softness has never come easily. But then the banana reminds me of my childhood best friend, Melissa. I could be soft with her, and she with me. We were vulnerable with each other, even mushy.
On her first visit to my house, when we were in preschool, Melissa asked my mom for a banana and said, “All of the ones at my house have condoms on them.” She spoke through pouty lips while placing both hands on her four-year-old hips. I didn’t know it, but I fell for her right then.
I was a year older than Melissa and always felt way more mature. But Melissa had something on me: her mother, Sharon. She worked for Planned Parenthood and had already explained sex at length to Melissa. The bananas at their house were covered with condoms because they were Sharon’s props to speak to local schools about safe sex.
Sharon also gave Melissa a purple book that empowered her with a sort of sexual knowingness. Sometimes, when I visited, Melissa and I poured over "The Purple Book," which featured illustrations of the male and the female body. I was familiar with the breasts of nude women from my grandma’s art, and from weekly baths with my mom. I knew that hair existed in that triangular area on grown-ups, whereas other kids who played with Barbie dolls would just see something smooth and censored.
I have never allowed myself to be as vulnerable as I was with this first love. She had something on me, a sexual knowledge that we then explored together.
During sleepovers, we looked at the purple book under the covers, with a flashlight like you see in those dumb sitcoms featuring a boy with his Playboy. But I had no experience with the male form. And seeing an illustration changed everything for me. I, too, could never look at a banana the same way. It was just so similar to the shape of a penis. It just dangled there.
It seemed like men had some kind of a weapon, a sword or dagger that they could grab at any time. Women did not, and their strength was more internal.
Towards the middle, pages featured illustrations of bodies coming together, one on top of the other. In one pose, a naked woman spread her legs and the man was on the top right and entered with his penis drawn between them.
Unbeknownst to my mother, Melissa and I attempted to reenact what we saw. Since I was the older one, at five years old, I laid on top of Melissa until our underwear rubbed together. Hers had The Little Mermaid on it, while mine had polka dots. Then we figured out our sensations together. It was like Aladdin rubbing a lamp and waiting for the genie to come out. While I refused to watch Disney movies and cartoons, claiming that they were too babyish, Aladdin seemed exotic and showcased the kind of real magic that I knew we could attain. We knew, even at this innocent age, that if we looked at these pictures and made contact with our matching body parts, something would happen. We couldn’t explain it, but it felt good. Like when you scratch a mosquito bite that itches.
I felt the need to guide my younger friend on other matters besides sex, so I wouldn’t seem unripe. When we took a bath together, I pretended I could tell which bottle was shampoo and which one was conditioner. But my reading level was not that good, and when we were worried that we screwed up the order and our hair would fall out, I’d say with certainty, “That’s how they do it in France.”
While drying off, we sat on the turquoise blue bath mat and examined what was between our legs. In that special area, goose bumps arrived post-bath. Our skin looked like the raw chicken that my mom bought. Their dots came from plucking, but we didn’t even have hair yet to be removed.
When Melissa and I were around seven, my mother took us to a nudist co-ed bathhouse in our hometown of Santa Cruz. We looked around while we sat in giant hot tubs made from the trunks of redwood trees, and saw our first saw penis in a neighboring tub.
We had seen men topless before at the pool and beach, but we had never seen that lower region for real. As the man exited the deep tub, more of his flesh emerged from the water. This banana-shaped body part came to life. In an almost cartoonish display, the pubic hair surrounding this foreign object was in the shape of a heart.
Although Melissa and I only saw it once, we talked about his penis for years. It was a friendly real-life opening to this world of the male body. Like when you put a heart for the dot of an “i” on an invitation to an exclusive party. We giggled and whispered about it in many back seats. We drew hearts in our lined notebooks, an unbreakable code that forever changed our point of view.
Maybe this obsession emerged because neither one of us knew our fathers well.
Both were from Spanish-speaking countries somewhere below California. Hers was from Mexico, mine was from El Salvador, and I thought that those were the same place. I didn’t yet claim my Jewtina heritage. But I knew that we were different, exotic. I was Jewish, Latina, and white. She was Jewish, Latina and black.
When we got a bit older, around nine, Sharon began dating a cop named John Green, and my mom started seeing a fireman named Greg Ford. Our free-spirited, five-feet-zero inch, mothers moved in with these men and both of our households upgraded to middle-class. Melissa now had a trampoline in her backyard, instead of the hot tubs and pools in always-changing apartment complexes or tiny cottages near the beach. We lay on the netted black floor of the trampoline and discussed our similarities and how things had changed. Both of these new, loosely-cast father figures were so-called heroes with boring names in comparison with our mysterious fathers from exotic lands, we decided.
Eventually, our mothers married these men when Melissa and I hit our tween years. Our new blended family wasn’t all that bad. I had a larger bathroom with two sinks, which I had to share with my stepbrother.
But our world of just women was gone and so was the male mystique.
When Melissa came over, we filled the bathroom sinks with hot water, as hot as we could make it. We sat on the counter and placed our feet in the water and looked in the mirror, with our feet turning bright red and throbbing like a pumping heart. We thought this was a pedicure and we’d begin to play our other favorite make-believe game. We imagined we were both models living all over the world, mainly Paris, and we shared boyfriends. We shared everything at this time.
Our make-believe eventually became dramatic. One of us would start crying, and the other would say that it’s just a game, with an eye roll and an exaggerated sigh. We’d make up by lying on top of one another and trying to create more friction for excitement until my mom walked in. Then we hugged and told her we loved each other so much.
When I became a teenager, I began dating boys and decided I had outgrown Melissa. Melissa moved away, near Las Vegas. I was surprised to learn that she had her first baby at sixteen, married the father, and went on to have a big family with him. Sweet Melissa, who knew about safe sex since she was four, consciously chose to be a young mom and created a traditional family that is going strong more than ten years later.
I have remained fiercely independent and single, despite dating a variety of exotic Jewish men. I have never allowed myself to be as vulnerable as I was with this first love. She had something on me, a sexual knowledge that we then explored together. Even when I lost my virginity in college, I didn’t dare confide to my boyfriend that he was my first.
I think more about vulnerability and decide that my mother was right, that vulnerability and trust will guide me to the love I seek.
Melissa was the condom for my heart long before men with banana and weapon-shaped body parts could bruise it.