Troubles Pubertas Agonistes I started puberty very late. I was nearly sixteen. And for complicated reasons this late arrival of my puberty caused me to stop playing competitive tennis. But before my puberty problem, I had trouble with my lower back and with my left testicle. The back was the first thing to go-in the third grade, at an introductory Cub Scout picnic. I had gone to this picnic against my better judgment. I must have heard some rumors about the Cub Scouts and I was afraid that I would have to build things at the picnic and use tools, and I already knew by the third grade that I wasn't mechanically inclined. I put up as much resistance as an eight-year-old could-there may have been some tears-but my father insisted that we go. And as it turned out there were no tools at the picnic, only game-playing. I started having a pleasant tennis ball catch with another boy, and after several tosses the ball sailed over my head. I went to retrieve it, and though I thought I was all right, I must have still been nervous about joining the Cub Scouts, because when I bent over to pick up the ball, I experienced terrible spasms in my lower back. It was crippling, the muscles clenched like fingers into fists, and I folded up and fell to the ground. My father had to carry me out of the picnic past all the other boys and their fathers. I remember him laying me in the backseat of the car. This was upsetting for my dad: He was a former Boy Scout. He had hoped that I would become an Eagle Scout one day, a goal he had been unable to achieve himself because he couldn't really swim and one of the Eagle Scout tasks has to do with treading water for many hours in an icy lake in your blue uniform, or something like that. My father could doggy-paddle, but he couldn't risk putting his head underwater because of a Depression-era mastoid operation in his ear that had left a large hole. So, like my father, I never became an Eagle Scout. I never even went back to the minor leagues of the Boy Scouts-the Cub Scouts. That picnic ended my scouting career. A few days after the picnic, and after several more episodes of painful, constricting back spasms, my mother took me to an orthopedist, who had unusually hairy fingers and a stern manner. He tapped me all over and massaged me roughly with his unattractive digits, seeking a diagnosis. I'm not sure he came up with one, but he prescribed that I wear a corset, saying that my back needed to be held in, and the way he said it made me feel as if I was being punished for some weakness of my character, rather than just a weakness in my lower back. And what an unusual, outdated prescription-how many other boys, I wonder, in 1972, were advised by physicians to be corseted? So my mother, thinking that you always obey doctors, took me to a hospital pharmacy that had prosthetic devices and other gadgets-special toilet seats, harnesses, organ trusses-and I was fitted and measured for my corset by a small, bald pharmacist who used the same kind of measuring tape as a tailor. My corset was white with silver buckles and had metal rods to keep my back from dissembling. I wore it for a year and was deeply humiliated. Only once did that corset give me any pleasure. I was with all the children on my street watching a Ping-Pong game in the garage of a neighbor. One of the players, an older boy, had perceived that I had interfered with one of his shots (this was untrue-he was losing badly and wanted someone to blame), and he started chasing me. I raced up my neighbor's driveway and across their lawn. I was wearing a heavy sweatshirt to cover the bulk of my corset, so my pursuer didn't know about my condition. He was right behind me, but even with the corset, I was able to scoot quickly. The other kids came running, too. The enraged boy was fat and had white-blond hair. He still held his paddle. He was going to try and smack me with it. He ran well despite his weight. Like in a dream, where you can't run, my legs did begin to feel heavy, and I felt the nausea that comes before the inevitable submission to a beating. So when he caught up to me at the end of my neighbor's lawn, he hit me as hard as he could with his Ping-Pong paddle right in my lower back. It was going to be the first of several blows, but I didn't feel a thing and I heard a snapping of wood and I turned around just in time to see the circular part of the paddle fly in the air like a Frisbee and then land at the feet of the other children, our audience. The blond boy had unwittingly smashed his little racquet against my hidden metal rods, my secret armor, and it had severed the disclike head, which in a strange act of physics had ricocheted dramatically upward and, as I said, come down to earth at the feet of our amazed peers. So my attacker stood there holding the handle of his decapitated paddle, and he was stunned, defeated. Everyone laughed at him. It was a moment of triumph. But that was the only victory my corset gave me, and in the middle of this time of wearing my corrective garment, I had another problem: My left testicle ascended and wouldn't come down. I was taken to another doctor and he told my mother that this wasn't uncommon in young boys and was usually a temporary condition. So luckily for me, he didn't recommend some kind of organ truss to pull the testicle down, which would have complimented my white waist-cincher, but the doctor did say that if my testicle didn't return home by the time I started puberty, then surgery might be necessary. And I was mature enough to know that surgery in the area of one's penis was not a desired event. I'm not sure why my testicle went into hiding, but, like my back problem, I think it was fear-related: I found the third grade to be very stressful academically. There was an enormous quota of dittoes to be filled out each day, and three days a week, in the afternoons, I was starting to go to Hebrew school; so this overload of education had me quite nervous. My mother, a schoolteacher herself, expected me to be a perfect student, and I was terribly afraid that I couldn't be. In fact, I pleaded with her to let me drop out of everything (it was all too difficult; for the first few weeks of third grade I cried every night and pounded my feet into my bed), but she wouldn't let me quit-how could she?-and I started learning then that we spend most of our lives doing what we don't want to do. And so like a scared soldier in a bunker whose testicles are known to elevate during heavy shelling (to protect them, and then they descend during peacetime, which accounts for postwar baby booms), my testicle elevated during this fearful period of my life. Why only one went up, and not two, is a mild flaw in my theory, but let me press on. So I was missing a testicle and wearing a corset. I was eight years old. Then my health, on its own, improved. By the time I was nine and a half, all my problems cleared up. The testicle ended its strike and returned to work and the corset was banished to my underwear drawer, where it stayed for several years, a terrible sight, a terrible reminder. I began to play a lot of sports, and I excelled at soccer and tennis. I was quite happy for almost two years. I had nothing to worry about. But then when I was eleven something unexpected occurred: My best friend started puberty. I saw him naked when we were changing to go swimming. I was shocked. His enlarged penis and thatch of pubic hair looked vulgar to my eyes, and yet I wanted the same thing to happen to me. I didn't say anything to him about his hairy penis; I pretended not to have noticed, but I was secretly hurt that he hadn't mentioned his transformation. It seemed like the kind of thing that a best friend should confide in you about. So I didn't really enjoy our afternoon swim, the whole thing had me feeling conflicted, and that evening, looking for parental counsel, I asked my mother when I would get hair and have a big penis. "One day," she said, "some fluid, not urine, will come out of your penis. At night. And after that happens you'll get pubic hair and your penis will get bigger." Some fluid. Not urine. This was very mysterious. I thought it must be a once-in-a-lifetime secretion that marked one's passage into adulthood, something akin to a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, which was the scientific equivalent I came up with-back then one was always seeing in school slow-motion films of such metamorphoses. So I was naive and unusually innocent; I never figured out until well after the fact that my mother had been referring to a wet dream. Thus, I waited for this unknown, unnamed fluid for the next four and a half years, while all the girls and boys around me began to change and grow. As a result, I developed an acute awareness and fascination for that surest and most visible sign of puberty-armpit hair. I was always noting with sad jealousy the armpit hairs of my peers in the gym locker room; and I was forever inspecting my own armpits in the mirror at home. I'd shine a flashlight on them, hoping to spot the most meager follicle. But my pits were barren; no hairs flourished. Then one time on the school bus, in the spring of sixth grade, I saw a girl's lovely blond armpit hairs when she grabbed hold of the pole near the driver. I was mesmerized, enchanted. My little penis turned immediately to stone. This girl was becoming a woman before my eyes-she had hair! Beautiful, gold-blond armpit hair. It was glorious. I desired her and I envied her and I never forgot her. Fourteen years later, while visiting the Greek island of Santorini, I saw an attractive German woman's blond armpit hair and I was transported back in time-like Proust with his madeleine-to that vision of blond armpit hair on the school bus, and my reaction in Greece, all those years later, was exactly the same: I was enchanted and my penis turned to stone. One summer during my teenage years, when I was waiting for my Godotish puberty, I went away to a Jewish Camp in Upstate New York. I was in the Levi division (Levi was the name of one of the original Hebrew tribes before it became a pair of jeans) of newly christened teenagers, and to my horror I discovered that I was the only boy who still had a small, undeveloped penis and no pubic hair! So I had to hide myself the whole summer. I would quickly change my clothes with my back to my tentmates, and I only showered early in the morning when no one else was around. It was nerve-racking. But one person did see my naked form-the head counselor of Levi, who was the best-looking counselor in the whole camp with his curly blond hair and perfect physique, and who decided one night that he should assist me in putting calamine lotion on my body for a very bad case of poison ivy I had contracted. To do this, he took me up to the shower room when no one was there. He had me strip down to my underwear and he began to coat me with the pink lotion. Then he inquired as to whether or not I had the rash in my groin area. I admitted that I did, so he knelt in front of me and began to pull down my underwear. I was extremely embarrassed and before my secret, tiny penis was revealed, I made an apology-I whispered, "I'm very small." I wasn't worried about being sexually abused; it was the 1970s and sexual abuse hadn't been invented yet. I was simply concerned about someone finding out that I hadn't started puberty. So down came my underwear and the counselor put the lotion on my small penis, and he said, "Don't worry, you have plenty of time." This was very sweet and kind of him, though I felt a little funny when he quickly pulled up my underwear when he heard the door to the shower room open up. I intuited that what had occurred was perhaps not proper. And sure enough, this very nice, handsome counselor left the camp several years later under ominous circumstances. I still do wonder what became of him. For me, my encounter with him was actually quite tender. Before the judge, if I was ever called, I would say, "He was very reassuring." And that counselor was right. I did have plenty of time. I turned fourteen, then fifteen, but still no armpit hair or fluid. I was starting to lose my mind over this. Then in the spring of my freshman year of high school, this puberty situation got really out of control when I made the tennis team. It was late March when I was selected for the squad-it was an honor to have been chosen as a freshman-and because it was still cold out, our practices were held at an indoor racquet club before school started. At the end of the first practice, our coach, who was short and dark and bore a slight resemblance to my father, announced that every day after we were done playing we were to go for a jog around the parking lot and then come in and shower. Showering was mandatory, he said, because we couldn't go to school smelling of sweat. "It's not healthy," he explained. I didn't know how I was going to escape exposure and humiliation. I hadn't been seen naked for years, except by the understanding counselor at camp. I was practically of normal height for my age, but that was the only normal thing about me. My lack of puberty was my most guarded secret. I regretted having tried out for the team. I hadn't considered the showering. There had been no showering during try-outs, and in the fall when I was on the freshman soccer team, none of us had showered.
Excerpted from What's Not to Love? by Jonathan Ames. Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Ames. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.