It took me a very long time to work up the nerve to kiss Shann Collins, who was the first and only girl I had ever kissed.
There was a possibility that I’d never have kissed her, too, because she was the one who actually initiated the kiss.
It happened nearly one full year after the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer.
Like Robby explained to her: I was shy.
I was on the conveyor belt toward the paper shredder of history with countless scores of other sexually confused boys.
After the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer, I tried to get Shann to pay more serious attention to me.
I tried any reasonable method I could think of. I joined the archery club when I found out she was a member, and I offered multiple times to do homework with her. Sadly, nothing seemed to result in serious progress.
At last, all I could do was let Shann Collins know that I would be there for her if she ever needed a friend or a favor. I do not believe I had any ulterior motives in telling her such a thing. Well, to be honest, I probably did.
I’d leave notes for Shann tucked inside her schoolbooks; I would compliment her on her outfit. She laughed at such things. Shann knew it was a ridiculous thing to write, since all the girls at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy dressed exactly the same way. Still, history will show that patient boys with a sense of humor, who can also dance, tend to have more opportunities to participate in the evolution of the species than boys who give up and mope quietly on the sidelines.
But I began to worry. Rumors were spreading around Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy about me and Robby, even though I never heard anything directly.
Then, in the second semester of eighth grade, I was called in to the headmaster’s office for something I wrote in a book report. Even though the book I read was in Curtis Crane’s library, as well as the Ealing Public Library, apparently nobody other than kids had bothered to read the book until I wrote my report on it.
The book was called The Chocolate War, and the copy I read belonged to my brother, Eric. Mrs. Edith Mitchell, who was the eighth-grade English teacher, assumed the book was about a candy kingdom or something. She probably thought there were magical talking peacocks
in the book that shot gumballs and Sugar Babies out of their asses.
But there were teenage boys in the book—Catholic boys—who masturbated.
Boys who attend Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy are not allowed to masturbate.
My father nearly lost his job because I wrote a report on a book that had Catholic boys and masturbation in it.
Pastor Roland Duff, the headmaster at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, was very distraught.
He had the school’s only copy of The Chocolate War resting on his desk when I came to his office.
There, he counseled me about masturbation and Catholicism.
“My fear is that when boys read books such as this,” he said, “they will assume there is nothing at all wrong with masturbation, and may, out of curiosity, attempt to masturbate. In fact, Austin, it is true that masturbation has serious harmful effects. It makes boys spiritually and physically weak.”
The headmaster patted his forehead, which was damp, with a handkerchief that had the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy logo—a black cross surrounded by a bloodred heart—embroidered on its corner. I wondered if they had prepared him in his religious training for giving teenage boys talks about masturbating.
He went on, “In history, entire armies have been defeated because their soldiers masturbated too frequently. It happened to the Italians in Ethiopia.”
When he said the words too frequently, I wondered if there was some number higher than once or twice per day that would get me off the hook to hell and military failure.
In any event, I hoped he was right. I hoped the bad guys in Afghanistan—where my brother, Eric, whose book got me into trouble, was fighting—were also excessive masturbators like the Italians.
Pastor Roland Duff continued, “Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.”
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and he talked to her about masturbation, too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.
As I stood there, shifting my weight awkwardly from one foot to the other, Pastor Roland Duff told my mother about the Warning Signs of Masturbation, so she could keep a better watch over me.
Then he sent me home with my mother and suspended me from classes for one day.
When I came back to school, Mrs. Edith Mitchell made all the girls leave the classroom while Pastor Roland Duff explained the guidelines for books we boys were not allowed to read at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. We were no longer permitted to read any books that had masturbation, Catholics, or penises in them. Pastor Roland Duff gave the entire class of boys the same speech he’d given me about masturbation, weakness, and homosexuality.
Once again, he blamed masturbation for Italy losing wars.
That kind of shit never made it into history books, either.
Sometimes, during his speech, he would remark, “As I was explaining to Austin Szerba . . .”
And he would wave his hands as though he were shaping a doughy Austin Szerba in the air, so all the other boys could see what a boy who wrote a book report about masturbation and Catholics looked like.
Then he led the boys in prayer and excused us so Mrs. Edith Mitchell could have a similar talk with the girls.
Robby and I whispered outside that after all that masturbation talk, a cigarette would be nice.
It was the worst day of my life since Eric left home.
Everyone knew that I was the one to blame for all the trouble about masturbating. At Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, you couldn’t hear the name Austin Szerba and not think about masturbating.
I didn’t speak in class again for the rest of the year.
Robby thought it was funny and told me I was brave.
Best friends do that kind of stuff.
When the boys were taken out of the room, I wondered if Mrs. Edith Mitchell was telling the girls about Austin Szerba, and how teenage boys masturbate, or if maybe she had found a book with girls who masturbated in it. Thinking about a book like that made me very horny.
The library was quieter and emptier than usual for a long time after that day.
But when the boys came back into the classroom, Shann deftly slipped a note onto my lap beneath our desks. I thought she was going to tease me about masturbating, but the note said this:
Okay, I’ll admit it, Austin Szerba, you have finally won me over. I read The Chocolate War, too. I love that book. This school is full of shit. Let’s go get a Coke after class and hang out. By the way, I like what you’re wearing today.
I was dressed exactly like every other boy at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy.
Later that day, Shann Collins and I kissed for the first time.
It happened right after I said to her, “Stupid people should never read books.”