I never masturbated with a hot dog. I don’t have the slightest clue where that story originated. Countless hours of my life have been wasted pondering every possible avenue of explanation, but nothing ever adds up.
Even the most wild and improbable rumors of McKinley Junior High usually contained some kernel of truth from which they popped. John and Jane make out at a party, Jane misses a few weeks with mono, and suddenly everyone’s whispering about some secret abortion. A sophomore trying to be funny gets arrested for faux-coughing ‘Pig!’ during the break-up of a parents-out-of-town party, and come Monday, the word is that he punched the cop and stole his gun.
I had never masturbated before when that started going around. I wasn’t even entirely sure why one would. Sexuality was a foreign world that I tried to avoid.
The avoidance was partly due to intimidation, unaware that my peers who acted confident on the matter were as clueless as I was. But mostly because I knew it was something I wasn’t going to be a part of. When I was little, my mom used to sit on the couch and watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. She’d get all excited and shout when she saw some really extravagant luxury that looked wonderful. But when it was over, she’d realize she’d never have it, which would make her sigh and light a cigarette and stalk off to mix another Screwdriver.
That’s how I felt about sex. It seemed interesting at first. The idea of it made me feel warm and gave me butterflies. But once I sensed that no one wanted to have it with me, I paid less and less attention to it. And when my friends started doing it, they all turned into impulsive idiots, which made it even less appealing.
I didn’t masturbate for the first time until freshman year of college. It’s not like I was asexual or anything. I had buzzy feelings and tongue-tying crushes and all of that. But it was mostly based around the idea of love and sex. The act itself made me uncomfortable.
The only thing more puzzling than how the rumor got started is why anyone would feel the need to craft it. Most gossip tended to revolve around people that were noticed – the popular kids, the troublemakers, the crazies. But I had been more or less invisible up to that point.
Kids had always made fun of me, but once we got to junior high, it became less and less noticeable. Elementary school mockery is open and venomous, and everyone is fair game. Junior high isn’t much more civilized, but there’s a sense of empathy developing, as well as a hierarchy. This newfound understanding doesn’t make them stop, but it does instill a certain sense of decorum and boundaries. The open, public venom usually doesn’t get spit unless you join the fray. Any attempt to be cool or join the circle – as sheepish and innocent as the motive may be – is a murky, subconscious entry into the race for alpha status, and no one is safe. Throw your hat in the ring, and all bets are off. If you keep to yourself, people will still make fun of you, but they mostly do it out of earshot, and when they’re done laughing, sometimes someone will say ‘Aw, I feel bad. She’s nice.’
Once in a blue moon, I was an innocent casualty of someone’s need for validation – someone would need an easy mark and make a crack about me passing in the halls. Their pack would laugh and my cheeks would heat up, but most of them didn’t even know my name and the moment was forgotten before late bell. I was more or less off the radar.
Or so I thought.
Contrary to popular belief, I spent the night of Spring Formal at home watching movies with my mom. She was convinced that my inability to find a date had caused some depression that needed to be tiptoed around and soothed with distractions. I wasn’t bothered one way or the other, and was actually looking forward to going online and playing GemStone. A bunch of people I knew from the game had planned to attempt a trek from one side of the map to the other.
But I could feel the warmth in her intentions, and so I feigned excitement at the suggestion of pizza and ice cream and Blockbuster. I rolled my eyes when she shoehorned some darkest-before-the-dawn parable about meeting my dad into the conversation, and grunted with clenched teeth whenever she asked vague, rehearsed questions about my life, but for the most part I pretended to enjoy it, and at moments I honestly did.
The story caught on pretty quickly, but I can’t say when it started. I was one of the last to hear about it. But I can remember noticing something was different. People stared and pointed and snickered, especially on days when the cafeteria served hot dogs. I went from feeling invisible to wishing I was, without the slightest clue why until later that summer.
Every June our town held a festival where a bunch of carnies came through town with low rent rides and games and fried food stands. Even those who rolled their eyes when they mentioned it ended up going. There wasn’t much else to do. I went with Paige, a girl from the trailer park I played Magic with. We ended up running into some other trailer park kids, and everyone snuck off into the woods to smoke a joint. I didn’t smoke weed, but I enjoyed being a part of a group.
The guy with the weed had long hair and a leather jacket. He was a little scrawny and kind of bug-eyed, but still really cute. Sitting on a stump at the head of the circle, he rolled the joint on a cheap framed Jack Daniels logo he had won for popping balloons with darts. Everyone listened when he talked – he seemed like a leader without striving to be. At one point, I did an impression of the carnie from the balloon game that made him laugh so hard he gave me a beer from his backpack and offered me a seat on the cinder block closest to him. For a minute or two, I let myself daydream scenarios where he might like me.
‘So you go to McKinley?’ he asked, shaking the hair from his eyes. I wanted them to be the eyes of a poet. They looked like it.
‘Yeah.’ They all went to Taft, which was on the other side of town.
‘You know Greg McGill?’
‘Yeah, he’s in my homeroom.’
‘Yo, you know that chick who snapped a hot dog off in her cooch?’ the kid to my left shouted with a cackle. A few people laughed. He had an underdeveloped mustache and he talked like a redneck trying to sound black. ‘What’s her name? Shelly Hudson?’
Paige shot me a panicked look, quickly trying to recover with a feigned confusion. I just shook my head and said no.
‘Did that really happen?’ asked my daydream boyfriend.
‘Shit, yeah! My cousin was workin’ in the E.R. that night!’
‘Isn’t everyone really snobby there?’ Paige asks, a bit too fast and loud, the delivery a bit wooden. This is usually the first thing someone from Taft asks about McKinley. I run with her cue, and after a minute or two the conversation shifts to syncing up The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon.
Everyone has moments in life when they realize that their perception was totally off, and they were completely oblivious to reality. Like processing the reveal of a twist in a good thriller, your mind begins to spin, frantically reflecting on evidence that suddenly seems obvious but hadn’t been considered. I pretended to be a part of the circle, but was just following social cues at that point. I caught enough bits and pieces to realize that my fantasy poet was kind of an idiot with a grasp on reality as flimsy as my own, but for the most part, the conversation around me sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.
Paige painted her nails black and dyed her hair a choppy, homemade combo of jet black and Kool-Aid red. She acted fierce and jaded, but was actually pretty fragile emotionally. Most people don’t know how ridiculous their lies can be until they’re exposed for them, and a lot of the time it’s easier and less complicated to let obvious fibs pass than call them out. Judging by the adults around me, I don’t think this sort of thing ever really stops, but it was especially absurd in junior high. One of Paige’s toe dips into uncharted waters was a claim that she was training to be a Wiccan or a witch or whatever. She talked of witnessing weather spells cast and demons summoned, and when she said it I wanted to laugh, but just nodded instead, mostly to be polite, but partly out of the naïve sliver of wonder that hoped it was true. There was also some occasional mention of an off again-on again boyfriend who went to Taft. Supposedly he was a drummer in a metal band with a twelve inch dick who could fuck for hours, though I never met him or anyone who had.
Before signaling to her that I wanted to leave under the pretense of some vague prior commitment, I jumped into the rotation and smoked weed for the first time. It tasted like a pine tree and left some bitter sap on my lips. I became uncomfortably dizzy, which was disorienting but somewhat fitting. I don’t know why I decided to try it. It just felt like the thing to do.
The whole walk back I thought about asking, and I think she was preoccupied with the fear that I would. I waited until we were back at the festival, hoping that the lights and bells and people would somehow distract from the awkwardness.
‘What were they talking about back there? The hot dog thing?’ Paige fishes a black cigarette from the metal case with the Black Sabbath logo on it. A lot of people who try to act cold and tough but are really softies tend to worship Ozzy Osbourne. It makes sense if you listen to him. For some High Priest of Darkness, his lyrics are pretty vulnerable to the point of being sappy.
‘Yeah, sorry about that,’ she says with a shake of the head, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear, the seven metal rings hanging from it resembling the spine of a spiral notebook.
‘Do people think I did something with a hot dog?’ She took a drag from her cigarette and sighed. It wasn’t much different from the reaction my mother had when she realized I’d deduced the truth about Santa Claus.
‘Did you?’ There’s an apologetic whimper to the question. As she asks, her whole body scrunches and shrinks.
‘No,’ I said, with a fluster that was genuine, though I feared it would mistaken for the ludicrously improbable acting so commonplace at the time. ‘How long have people thought this?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, suddenly remembering that her persona is supposed to be cold and calculating. She takes pronounced drags off her skunky cigarette and becomes fixated on the lights of the fast pitch booth. ‘Taft kids started talking about it a few weeks ago.’
‘What do they think?’
‘People say that on the night of McKinley’s Spring Formal, you were masturbating with a hot dog and it broke off inside you. They say you had to go to Hillcrest and have it removed.’
It takes me a minute to say something. I don’t even try to fake the impact of the blow. My legs are flimsy rubber, and it feels like I’m stumbling around with slot machine eyes, my mouth guard hanging from a drooping jaw. The whole world can see how weak I am, and I can’t even get it together enough to go down swinging.
‘That never happened.’ The look she gave me was the first of many. The eyes of someone you trust, who you think knows you, firmly meeting yours with a glint that suggests even the most adamant and logical protestations will always be tainted with a drop of skepticism. I felt like Fox Mulder. Telling the truth makes you sound crazy.
‘Did you think it did?’ I ask, snatching the cigarette from her hand and taking a drag. This was a first for me, as well, and looking back I think I did it both for the distraction and as an emphasis of my desperate confusion. ‘Since you’ve met me, have you thought that I did that?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, chewing on her thumbnail, her self-described ‘I speak my mind, I don’t hold back, I tell it like it is’ persona suddenly nowhere to be found. ‘Maybe. But…whatever. I’m your friend, either way. I figured if it was true, you’d tell me, if you wanted to.’ She bites her lip, her shoulders deflating.
‘Well, it’s not true.’ I wrapped my arms around my chest and huffed at first, trying to look annoyed, but I couldn’t keep it together, and after a few seconds I collapsed onto her in a desperate hug a bit too awkward to have in public (with the exception of funerals, weddings, and sporting events). She hugs me back, tightly, which is the nice thing about outcasts and the downtrodden. For all of our flaws, we tend to value raw, emotional honesty with a patient understanding.
I always tend to cast myself in the role of some righteous and earnest person who is constantly trampled by the cold and superficial world around them. But looking back, maybe I took that notion or circumstance as a free pass to lash out. I wince when I think of Paige and I clutching each other as the streaming crowd around us either ignored it or reacted with eye rolls and one liners. But it was the right thing to do on her part, and it was just what I needed. It seems like a simple gesture, but it takes some bravery and selflessness, and was something that had been missing from my life for some time. I’d had it with family, but they’re family. They can only protect you out in the wild for so long.
This lack was something that I looked at for a long time as an unfair burden brought on by a low rank in a cruel world. But maybe you get what you give.
The last time I’d felt such comfort was with Karen, my childhood best friend. I’d always chalked our drifting apart up to her being another vain and shallow follower leaving me for the plastic world of popularity, as did those who tried to comfort me when it happened. On paper, it certainly looked like I was the innocent victim, and I played it that way. But as time goes on, I feel more and more like I was the one wearing the black hat.
Karen once needed a hug like the one Paige gave me. And I didn’t give it to her. Not only that, but I scoffed at her. She had been ditching me for a spot at the cool kids table, treating me like a pet or outright ignoring me whenever the two worlds collided. Our drifting apart was kind of inevitable in retrospect, but things really dovetailed the night she told me she gave her first blowjob to Mark Phillips.
He was this idiot baseball player whose dad was a dentist. He tortured me in fifth grade math class, constantly making fun of my since-corrected stutter. Karen stood up for me once, turning the heat on him with cracks about a small penis. Mark had always stood for everything that was wrong. And then she turned around and blew him.
In what could have been her darkest hour of confusion and shame, she clung to me for support, like I did Paige. If Paige had responded with the cold indifference that I did, I honestly think I may have attempted suicide that night.
As comforting as that embrace was, it was only the beginning. A few weeks after the festival, I got a letter in the mail from the Larkin Academy for Girls. I had scored really high on some standardized test and was offered a scholarship for low-income students. Most people thought the transfer was an attempt to run from the constant linger of shame. There’s probably some truth to that. If the rumor never got started, I may have protested the idea of going to a school with rich girls named Dakota who made the most impossibly perfect cheerleaders at McKinley look flawed, or having to wear itchy polyester uniforms with knee high socks.
But that’s not why I went. My parents saw it as some huge opportunity they never had, and my dad started working overtime to pay for the part of tuition that wasn’t covered. Everyone just assumed that it was because of the hot dog incident. My protestations and attempts to clarify became less and less inspired after time. No matter what I said, that glimmer of doubt would always be there. I would always be the girl who masturbated with a hot dog.
I never did uncover the genesis of the story, but for a long time I had penciled Karen in as my main suspect. She was my only vine to that world, and there was a motive. I never had enough evidence to convince myself fully of her guilt. In the end, I don’t think she had anything to do with it. Even so, she became the face of all the cruelty that I suffered.
An embarrassing amount of time was spent crafting poison-tipped lectures denouncing her fake and empty way of life, and there were a few opportunities to recite them, though I never did.
My feelings toward Karen burned, festered, scabbed, and eventually healed. The more I studied the scar, the more it felt like a self-inflicted wound. After time, she became something of a fictional character, somehow responsible for things that occurred years after we last spoke.
The idea of contacting her came to the surface a few times a year, but I never acted on it.