When I was fourteen years old, I fell in love with one of my uncles. Only eight years older than me, Uncle Tee had always been my favorite because he played games with me and the other cousins and siblings, crazy games like, “Chase Uncle Tee around the House with Flyswatters and Try to Smack Him.” He collected cool things like records and comic books, and he always had a cache of fireworks. I was Uncle Tee’s favorite, too. When he drove us to the skating rink, I always got to ride shotgun.
Like me, Uncle Tee enjoyed reading, and as I grew older, he gave me books, ragged paperbacks with the covers torn off that he bought for ten cents apiece at a local flea market. He introduced me to Stephen King’s early work—story collections published as Richard Bachman—and Dalton Trumbo’s tragic novel, Johnny Got His Gun, which involved a grievously injured soldier who wanted to die. I still recall the figure of the wounded soldier who had no limbs or face and so had to tap out in Morse code, “Kill me, kill me,” with his head on a pillow.
Uncle Tee lived in Oklahoma with my grandmother. Our romance was a long-distance relationship. He was tall, dark-haired, his large hazel eyes framed by movie star lashes. He worked midnight shift as a janitor at the nearby university. Throughout my childhood, I only saw him three or four times a year when my family made the five-hour drive to my grandmother’s house for holidays or summer vacation.
After I fell in love with my uncle, I flirted outrageously with him during visits. I announced in front of the entire family that when I turned eighteen, Uncle Tee and I were running away to Mexico to get married. Everyone laughed and thought it was hilarious. At night, everyone would gather in the living room to watch wrestling on the old Zenith, and I would curl up next to Uncle Tee as if he were my personal pillow. During one of our visits, my uncle was showing me new comic books in his room when we ended up looking at a copy of Hustler. It was the first time I had seen pictures of naked women, and the knowledge of their existence was thrilling.
In retrospect, my introduction to pornography seems both inconsequential and important. After all, if a teenage boy looked at a Hustler, few people would do more than shrug. Or maybe the important part isn’t that I was a girl, but that it was my uncle who shared the magazine with me. As an adult, I would argue that Uncle Tee was the safest man to be my practice boyfriend. He never transgressed any physical boundaries, and he was funny, kind, and intelligent. I was the one who was obsessed with romance and curious about boys and sex. I had looked up “sex” in the encyclopedia, but the entry was all about characteristics, how males have deeper voices and beards, while females develop breasts. “Sex” referred me to “reproduction,” which included outline drawings of the sex organs of men and women. The penis in the drawing curved down like a fat faucet; the vagina seemed much too narrow to allow it. I couldn’t envision how the process worked, but babies were proof that it did.
My curiosity wasn’t limited to the encyclopedia and Hustler, which were only two of the texts I consulted for information. I also looked up “sex” in the card catalog at the public library. One of the books listed was Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which I didn’t understand though I checked it out and read it three times. Harlequin romances were everywhere, but their narratives were formulaic and not that sexy. I really liked women’s magazines, like True Confessions, that had stories about stepfather sex and other outrageous fornications, but my mother forbade me to read them. At least once, I found a True Confession lying around the house and hid in the bathroom to read it anyway.
I knew enough not to tell anyone about looking at Hustler with Uncle Tee, and I didn’t think the secret was wrong. Even if my parents and my Southern Baptist milieu told me sex was bad, the larger culture celebrated sexuality, from popular music like “Afternoon Delight” to sexy advertisements for pantyhose and lip gloss, from TV shows like Love, American Style to fashion like tube tops and hot pants. When I examined the available evidence for logical consistency, I concluded that sexuality provides pleasure, and if sex is pleasant, it shouldn’t be bad. Uncle Tee never made me uncomfortable or ashamed. Our love felt empowering, mutual, and pure.
When I turned sixteen, I got a car and a job. I no longer went very often on family vacations, and I lost track of Uncle Tee for a while. Now we talk on the phone once or twice a year. He’s still in Oklahoma, retired from his maintenance job. He still collects records and comic books, and he’s read every Stephen King work ever published. He never married; my mother likes to say it’s because he was in love with me. When I ask him about it, he laughs and jokes, like, “What kind of ring does a married man get? Suffering.” He never asked to be the object of my romantic adolescent fantasies. He’s still my innocent uncle.