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[The more intense the desire the more intense the fulfillment. Does it bother you that the most intense desires and their fulfillments often don’t seem to make much sense? Instinctive desires, usually sexual, are the worst offenders. Religion’s historical approach to the problem of ‘disordered desire’ has come in for a lot of criticism in modern times, and everyone tends to feel that if they were in charge of sexual morality the human race would be happier and saner. I know I feel that way. But because I’ve never been invited to test my theory that ‘I know better,’ I’ve never felt a compulsive desire to work out in detail my ideas on sexual morality. The following passage from Mary Tyler Moore’s autobiography is a touching example of the kind of problem many people face, usually during their tender years. Desires and their satisfactions that are that intense should at least be taken seriously by the moral ‘powers that be.’ Needless to say, they almost never are, and the individual is left to struggle alone. In Moore’s case her strict Catholic father—a man who occasionally alluded to a lack of understanding with his father—even made light of her emotional difficulties. And this is often the case when those who should be sympathetic have no easy answer to a specific emotional problem. Sexual optimists, like Bertrand Russell, Havelock Ellis and many others, have not been particularly helpful either. They tried to apply their theories in their own lives and the results hardly inspire confidence. How optimistic are you in the matter of reforming traditional sexual morality?]

Jack O’Brien, a square-jawed, blond Adonis of a boy, joined our fifth grade late in the semester and aside from dance class became the other element in my life. He had a shy smile, one that didn’t match his confident swagger. The sleeves of his tee shirt were always rolled up, revealing pretty mature biceps—something not seen in the fifth grade. He wore small heel-saving taps on his shoes (loafers—which no one else wore). His hair was laden with a rose-smelling pomade so you always knew where Jack was. He wasn’t very tall, his stinging blue eyes leveling out at about my shoulder. But that would be okay once we sat down to do the serious kissing I so wanted to try, when I looked at him. All the other girls were just as taken with this diminutive god as I, although no one ever talked of such things. The boys liked him, too.

I was living with my mother and father again, and Mom was making a real effort to be a better parent. Uncharacteristically, she had joined the Mothers’ Club (parochial version of the PTA), and had been asked to be a chaperone at the altar boys’ picnic. Every boy over nine was expected to volunteer for duty at Mass once or twice a week, and the picnic was Father O’Toole’s way of saying, “Thank you.”

Mom, to my delight, felt it would be better to bring me along than send me to my grandmother’s house for one day. I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I put together the possibilities. Jack O’Brien and I had been experimenting with eye contact, but found no outlet for further expression. We were eleven years old. Well, I was. I think he was ten.

At the picnic, the mothers set tables while the boys climbed rocks. Then everyone was to sit down to eat cold chicken.

During the “boys climb rocks” part, Jack and I managed to separate ourselves from the group and consummate our affair. We kissed a full frontal lip-to-lip kiss. I was done for. Fireworks, heartbeats, streamers, and some kind of stringed instrument. I was to be forever changed in that moment.

I was as filled with pleasure and validation by that kiss as any that would follow in adulthood.

When you’re eleven there’s very little to support the assumption of a relationship—no one went out on dates; but I was certain Jack felt these strange feelings for me, too. After school, he and his gang of three or four boys (who followed him everywhere) would show up on the corner outside my house. He would lean against a tree, or be fixing a bicycle chain. It was all very casual, and surprise would register on his face when I approached, as though he kept forgetting I lived there.

On Saturday afternoon, as we made our way down the aisle of the local movie theatre, two of my friends and I spotted Jack and his entourage already seated. The move, Gilda, starred Rita Hayworth. It wasn’t a new movie, so the place was pretty empty.

Subtlety of action isn’t a big issue at that age, still I knew on some level there might be reason to question the choice I was making as I sat down next to him. Full coquettishness was not yet part of my arsenal.

So there we sat, Mary and Jack, flanked by our attendants, George Mitchell and Terry Sweeny for the groomlet, Valerie Yerke and Ann Powers for me. On the screen Rita Hayworth took off her gloves with the sensuality of someone removing a more personal item of clothing. And then, as she tossed her long black-and-white tresses and sang “Put the Blame on Mame” I was exquisitely aware of Jack’s arm, which had magically made its way to the top of my seat back and was now actually in contact with the nape of my neck. But, alas, that was it. Maybe Rita Hayworth made him realize how unworthy I was. I don’t know why, but the magic of eye contact would never again happen. He stopped coming by, and started hanging around Ann Connelly.

The inevitable pain of this pure little love, as it was carved into my heart upon ending, was an initiation against which all other heartbreaks would be measured. Jack O’Brien.

I confided in my mother, who obviously betrayed the confidence because every once in a while my father, staring out the front window, would say, “Here comes Jack O’Brien and he’s on his knees. No, wait, he’s standing up. He just looks like he’s on his knees.” He does it to this day.

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