Essay: Manhood, Part One

Faking it, with my sister Gail, at my Bar Mitzvah, May 1970

During the second week of May in 1970, two weeks before my bar mitzvah, I wet my pants. It happened during seventh grade social studies class. I had been rocking back and forth at my desk, dreading a quiz on India and Pakistan that I hadn’t studied for, when I suddenly realized I was soggy.
The first thing I did was…nothing. I sat motionless as the warm soak issued out from my groin. I could feel it running in rivulets in my underwear. After the initial sensation wore off, sheer disbelief set in. I hadn’t wet myself since—well, I’d never wet myself. Or at least I hadn’t wet myself since I was in diapers and thus dressed for the occasion.
How could it have happened? I was a seventh grader, for Christ’s sake! a bar mitzvah boy within the month! and I’d just wet myself? None of my peers had peed their pants since the dawn of grammar school, or at least not to my knowledge, and until that moment I’d figured that that particular form of classroom theater had been laid to rest. The last classmate I could recall shooting the rapids was Georgia, a third grader on whom I had a minor crush, who burst into tears and bolted from the classroom—the backside of her bright pink dress telling the sordid tale as she fled.
Even then, I remember thinking: How does that happen?
I mean, it wasn’t as if the procedure for requesting a bathroom break was difficult to master. You raised your hand. The teacher called on you. You said, “May I go to the bathroom?” You did notsay, “Can I go to the bathroom?” The distinction was crucial, according to my mom. The question “Can I go to the bathroom?” meant Does my thingamajig work? Whereas the question “May I go to the bathroom?” meant Am I permitted to leave the room and do what I need to do?
The difference between may and can, my mom said, might not seem like a big deal right now, but it was the difference between good manner and no manners. She told me to mark her words.
So I marked her words.
In any event, getting to the bathroom in time to do your business wasn’t exactly like working a slide rule. You raised your hand. The teacher called on you. Even if you slipped and said “can” instead of “may,” the teacher still nodded and let you go. Unless the need arose instantaneously—which seemed, in my experience, highly unlikely—how could you screw it up?
Yet here I was, two weeks from stepping up to the podium at Temple Gates of Prayer, two weeks from leading the congregation through a reading of the haftorah, here I was, in seventh grade social studies, suddenly awash in my Fruit of the Looms.
Still, I didn’t panic.
Taking stock of the predicament, I quickly realized that I’d caught a couple of breaks. The first was the fifteen minute quiz that the teacher, Mr. Roth, was handing out at that very moment—the quiz I had no chance to pass. Things dry out in fifteen minutes, I told myself. If I sat still, with my legs slightly parted, and let nature go to work, I might be able to stand up at the end and walk my quiz sheet to the front of the room without urine trickling down the legs of my pants.
The second break I caught was the pants themselves. The material was light cotton, which was bad, but the color was olive green—which would conceal, to a certain extent, the ground zero stain that was no doubt gathering into a Rorschach pattern below my belt buckle. (I didn’t dare slide back my seat to look.) If I could just get to the front desk, turn in my quiz, then get back to my seat without incident, I’d have another hour to recess until I had to rise from my desk again.
I might pull this off, I thought.
Mr. Roth dropped the mimeographed quiz on the desk in front of me and did not break stride. The smell of flop sweat was strong on him; it was a very grown up smell, tinged with cigarette smoke. I did not touch the quiz, however, until he was back in front of the room. He sat on the edge of his metal desk, looked down his horn-rimmed glasses at the class, and said, “You may begin.”
The sound of papers flipping over filled the air, and I exhaled. My situation, for the time being, was the last thing anyone would notice. I made a cursory show of skimming down the quiz. There was no chance I was going to pass; I hadn’t read the assigned textbook chapter because the weather had warmed up the week before, and I’d played softball and roundup tag to exhaustion each night since. One quiz question caught my eye, however: “How is the population estimated in the rural towns and villages in India?”
I picked up my pencil and wrote in the provided space: “One little, two little, three little Indians.”
As the minutes rolled past, I was feeling more and more hopeful about my prospects. I was still damp but by no means drenched. I took a casual glance around the room. None of the other students was paying the slightest attention to what I was doing. They were intent on the quiz. Now, I thought, would be a good time to slide back my chair, ever so slightly, and survey the damage.
I’d moved less than an inch when I heard Mr. Roth’s voice. “Mr. Goldblatt?”
“Yes?” I muttered.
Suddenly, I could feel every eye in the classroom trained on me.
“Are you cheating, Mr. Goldblatt?”
I shook my head vehemently. “No.”
“Then why are you looking down?”
He hopped off his desk and hustled up the aisle in my direction. The flop sweat and cigarette smell engulfed me; I looked up at him in desperation and confusion. “Stand up, Mr. Goldblatt.”
“I wasn’t cheating, Mr. Roth.”
“Stand up!”
“But I wasn’t—”
“I’m asking you for the last time.”
Braced for a wave of laughter, and the end of life as I knew it, I shut my eyes, slid back my chair and stood up.
There was no reaction. Not a sound.
I heard Mr. Roth say, “I saw you cheating, Mr. Goldblatt.”
I opened my eyes. “I swear I wasn’t cheating, Mr. Roth.”
“Empty your pockets.”
“You heard me, Mr. Goldblatt.”
I reached into the right front pocket of my pants, anticipating its contents would be thoroughly marinated, or at least noticeably moist, but miraculously came out with a bone dry handkerchief and three nickels. I set the handkerchief and nickels down on the desk, then looked back up at Mr. Roth.
“Now the other pockets…”
“There’s nothing in the other pockets, Mr. Roth.”
“Humor me.”
I pulled my left front pocket inside out, then both back pockets. There was not a trace of the earlier flood. I smiled up at him. “I told you.”
He grabbed me by the waist and spun me around, then patted me down, front and back. He opened up the top of the desk and rifled through the storage compartment. Then he got down on his knees and checked the floor.
He found nothing.
“All right, Mr. Goldblatt. Sit down…but know that I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Yes, Mr. Roth.”
“I’m watching you like a hawk.”
“Yes, Mr. Roth.”
“The rest of you,” he called, “get back to your quizzes!”
With that, the class went back to work, and I exhaled.
How could it have happened? I knew I’d wet my pants. There was no doubt in my mind. It hadn’t been a hallucination. I’d felt it, not thought that I’d felt it. But how could it have dried so fast? The universe worked according to certain laws; I’d learned that in general science class. My pants were wet, then were not wet. Maybe there was a God, I thought. Maybe He’d looked down on me and cut me slack because of the whole bar mitzvah thing.
I filled in several more answers on the quiz…took wild guesses at names and dates and places; if God had solved one problem for me, maybe he’d solve the rest. Maybe I had a get-out-of-jail-free card good through my bar mitzvah. As the fifteen minute time limit came to a close, I folded the quiz sheet in half and walked it up to the front desk. Mr. Roth narrowed his eyes at me as he took it from my hand, but he said nothing more.
When recess arrived an hour later, I made a bee line for the boy’s bathroom, locked myself in a stall and surveyed the accident scene. There was no urine; there was a slight dampness at the front of my underwear, centered at the flap, but the warm rivulets I’d felt against my skin were gone. Could the cotton be that absorbent? I pulled up my pants and left the stall without a rational explanation. For the rest of the afternoon, I put the incident from my mind.
As I rode the bus home from school later that afternoon, however, it began to nag at me again. What had happened? I skipped the Fig Newtons and Kool-Aid my mom had laid out on the kitchen table and motored straight to the bathroom. There, under the strong overhead light, I discovered a curious phenomenon I’d missed in the stall at school. There were dried flecks of what appeared to be Elmer’s Glue on the inside flap of my underwear; on closer examination, there were flecks on my skin as well. How could glue have gotten in my underwear? I did have a plastic tube in the storage compartment of my desk, but I hadn’t used it for weeks.
The entire incident, from start to finish, seemed inexplicable. I told no one, of course; I wasn’t about to announce that I’d wet my pants. I couldn’t dwell on it in any event. I had Hebrew passages to memorize.
My poor performance on the India and Pakistan quiz—I scored a sixty-one—had the paradoxical effect of convincing Mr. Roth that I hadn’t cheated…and that he’d shamed me in front of the class without cause. It turned out he had also asked a couple of notorious squealers whether they’d noticed me with a crib sheet, and one of them had speculated that I might have been studying for my bar mitzvah rather than cheating on the quiz. Whatever the case, Mr. Roth pulled me aside the following morning and apologized; he told me that he’d laughed at the “one little, two little, three little Indians” joke, and wished me good luck at Temple.
As I was about to turn and walk away, he clasped my shoulder and added, “It’s your big moment. Don’t screw it up.”
Until he spoke those words, the thought that I could screw up my haftorah reading had never crossed my mind. Sure, I’d be nervous; sure, I might get the intonations wrong. But screw it up outright? Freeze at the podium? It wasn’t an outcome I’d ever considered. The more I thought about it, though, the more real the possibility became. I had been working with the original Hebrew texts, but between the lines I’d scribbled full English transliterations—so that even if I blanked on the right-to-left characters, I could fall back on the left-to-right nonsense syllables in my own handwriting. That was my safety net. But by the time I got home, Mr. Roth’s words were ringing inside my head. The four pages of my haftorah suddenly looked like a blur of scratches and doodles, like something you’d find on an abandoned Etch A Sketch. How could a human being stand up in front of his relatives and friends and make sense of that?
Starting at that moment, and for the next two weeks, I was a nervous wreck. I tried to memorize the entire four pages, to rehearse the sounds in my head again and again so that I no longer had to look at the Hebrew or the transliteration—but the more I tried to memorize, the less I seemed to remember. I woke up three days before the event and could not begin.
Literally, I could not recall the first word.
What I could recall, in more and more vivid detail, were bar mitzvah calamities I’d witnessed. Bad things happened at that podium. The year before, for instance, Donald, a kid who lived three blocks away, had walked up to podium, stared down at the crowded pews, opened his mouth—and nothing came out. Dead silence. For a full minute, an eon of a minute, there was dead silence…punctuated, after fifteen seconds, by nervous coughs and whispers from the congregation, until at long last the rabbi stepped forward, put his arm around Donald’s shoulders, and led him through his entire haftorah, three halting Hebrew words at a time.
Then there was Asher, a brainiac I’d known since second grade, who ascended the stage with noticeable confidence and began, at once, to sweat. Beads of sweat formed across his forehead and glistened in the hot lights of the temple stage. They trickled into his eyes one by one, blinding him to the text, until the rabbi stepped forward with a handful of Kleenex. Asher finished his haftorah with his curly brown hair matted to his scalp, his starched pink collar soaked through, mopping his brow like Louis Armstrong after a long trumpet solo.
Then, of course, there were the urban legends, twice told tales of friends of friends who took to the podium and fainted. Or wept. Or vomited.
Or wet their pants.
So it came to pass that on the twenty-second day of the ninth month of the year 5730—that’s May 28, 1970, if you’re playing along at home—a mere forty-eight hours before I was set to become a man, with random sacred words swirling around in my brain, and with images of imminent humiliation roiling my bowels, I awakened just after sunrise…having wet my bed.
I lurched upright to a sitting position and muttered, “Oh no!”
But I could feel the truth gathering inside my pajamas, pooling in my lap, running down my right thigh, and puddling underneath me. I’d wet my bed, through my pajamas, and I had no doubt, none whatsoever, that I was going to wet myself again at the podium as I recited my haftorah.
I was doomed.
When I pulled back the covers and pulled down my pajama pants, however, I found not urine but a milky white liquid coagulating on and around me. Terrifyingly, it was still dribbling from the aperture of my penis.
Now, at once, the bar mitzvah was the least of my worries: I wasn’t doomed…I was dying.
Two courses of action suggested themselves. 1) Wake up my parents and tell them what had happened; 2) Wait a couple of hours and tell my best friend Lonnie. After several moments of deliberation, I chose Lonnie because I wanted him to say nice things about me at my funeral, and I knew he’d feel slighted if I turned first to my parents—who had to say nice things about me regardless.
Lonnie was always the last kid to line up for the school bus, rolling out of his house a half minute before the bus itself rolled up Parsons Boulevard. That was part of his mystique. He was a year older than I was and the coolest kid I knew, the coolest kid anyone I knew knew, and every night, when I hit my knees and laid me down to sleep, I thanked God that Lonnie and I had become friends long before either of us had a clear grasp of the concept of cool. Had we met afterwards, he wouldn’t have given me the time of day.
Lonnie was still yawning as I dragged him by the sleeve to the back of the bus, to the very last pair of seats, and pinky-swore him to secrecy. Then I told him that I was dying, and he looked at me with extreme skepticism, so I told him the entire sordid history, starting with me wetting my pants in social studies class and ending with me wetting my bed that morning.
As I came to the end, he began to laugh.
“It’s not funny!” I whispered.
“You don’t even know how funny it is.”
“It’s funny that I’m dying?”
“You’re not dying. You’re not even sick.”
“How do you know?”
“You jerked off. That’s all that happened.”
“I did not!”
“You did too. You jerked off.”
“No way!”
“Then you tell me. What else could it be?”
“Not that,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically for a split second. Then a sudden recognition came to face. “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Yes, I do—”
“You don’t know what jerking off means.”
“I know what it means!”
“All right, what does it mean?”
I tried to hold a look of indignation. But it was no use. He had me dead to rights. I’d heard the phrase hundreds of times; I’d heard it used as a verb and as a noun. Hell, I’d even used it myself. But until that moment, I thought it had to do with wasting time. As in: That guy’s just sitting at home, jerking off…what a jerk off!
Clearly, there was another definition.
I lowered my eyes. “Okay, I don’t know what it means.”
“I knew it!”
I shushed him. “C’mon, just tell me.”
His voice dropped. “Look, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed—”
“I don’t get why you didn’t just ask me in the first place.”
“What difference does it make?” I said. “I’m asking now.”
He leaned back. “Well, it means…you know, jerking off.
“It means getting a boner and jerking off.”
“Do you know what a boner is?”
I nodded—which was the truth.
“When you get a boner, you jerk off. Not all the time, but sometimes. It’s normal.”
“So you think that’s what happened?”
“No, I’m sure that’s what happened.”
“How do I keep it from happening again?”
“Why would you want to do that?” he said. “Didn’t it feel good?”
“Don’t you want to do it?”
“Sure, I do,” I said, ashamed to admit he’d lost me again.
“Then, there you go.”
“What does one thing have to do with the other?”
Lonnie sighed. “You still don’t know what we’re talking about.”
“I do so!”
He shook his head. “Look, are we friends or not?”
“Sure we are.”
“Then why are you lying to me?”
That got to me. “I don’t…it’s just that—”
“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t know what we’re talking about.”
The school bus slowed to a stop at a traffic light. Between that traffic light and the next one, a space of perhaps three minutes, Lonnie explained the facts of life. There were no metaphors. No talk of love or connectedness or commitment. Neither a bird nor a bee made a cameo appearance in his disquisition. He used blunt language and occasional hand gestures.
He told me what went where.
By the end of his talk, I had forgotten that I was dying. I had forgotten that I had a haftorah to learn and recite, that my relatives and friends were going to gather in the Temple on Saturday, the day after tomorrow, to witness my bar mitzvah. The totality of what I felt, the totality of thoughts and emotions, the totality of my consciousness at that moment, was revulsion.
I stared down between my legs. “I’m not doing that. Not ever.”
“Sure, you will,” Lonnie said, “Everybody does it. It’s natural.”
“No way…no way.”
“Your parents did it. Your mom and dad.”
“Oh, come on!”
“How do you think you got here?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Your parents did it. Their parents did it. Their parents’ parents did it. Their parents’ parents’ parents’ did it, going all the way back to Adam and Eve. That’s how the world works.”
I lifted my eyes up to meet his. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.”
“Who told you?”
“My dad told me some. The rest I figured out for myself.”
“You’re okay with it?”
“Not at first,” he said. “I was like you. I thought about my mom and dad doing it, and I thought no way. That’s what everybody thinks at first. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Just think about how things fit together. It’s like when you’re doing a puzzle. You know when it’s right because the pieces just fit…” Each sentence he spoke felt like a punch to the gut. The sounds of the words themselves were nauseous. I wanted him to stop, but I didn’t know how to ask. My head sank lower and lower until at last he interrupted himself and said, “You look like you’re going to puke.”
I glanced up. “I’ve just got a bad taste in my mouth.”
“You’re not going to puke, are you?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I said.
“It’s tough the first time you hear it. But then it’s not so bad. Trust me.”
I wanted to trust him. I did trust him. That’s what was making it worse.
Lonnie and I parted company as soon as the bus pulled up in front of the school. He was a grade ahead of me and had a different set of friends at school. He trotted off to meet them at the entrance of the schoolyard, and I went straight to my homeroom. I sat down at my desk and began scanning the room from side to side, wondering which of my classmates, shuffling through their papers, getting their assignments in order, knew the ugly truth. It couldn’t be that many, I decided. Maybe Arnie and Sherm…they were tall. Maybe Hector too because he spoke Spanish. Asher was another possibility, even though he’d sweated through his bar mitzvah suit, because he was a brainiac. But none of the girls knew. I was certain of that.
I mean: If the girls knew, how could they bear to sit next to the boys?
I tried to tough it out once class began but lasted only until lunch. That was when I told Mr. Roth that I felt sick to my stomach—which was true. I knew, of course, that he’d write it off to pre-Bar Mitzvah jitters. He clasped me by the shoulder and winked at me. He smelled, as always, of flop sweat and cigarette smoke. Right then, all I could think about was Mr. Roth doing it.
My mom drove to school and picked me up at the nurse’s office. Riding home, I thought about her doing it with my dad. Then, for one horrible moment, I thought about her doing it with Mr. Roth.
“Are you worried about Saturday morning, honey?”
I stared out the passenger side window. “I guess.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll do fine.”
“I guess.”
“Whatever happens, you know that I’m very proud of you. Your father is too.”
I thought: They probably talk about how proud they are while they’re doing it.
I holed up in my room once I got home, alternating between taking short naps and watching the Three Stooges and Gilligan’s Island on a portable black and white Zenith television. My mom knocked on the door after sunset and handed me a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of grape juice. That was the only human contact I had. I don’t remember whether I dreamed that night, but I woke up Friday morning and decided to skip school. I called the decision out to my mom through the closed door.
I gave her no reason; she didn’t ask for one.
That entire Friday I spent in front of the Zenith, with the sound turned down to an inaudible level, not so much watching it as wallowing in its rays. At one point, I brought over my haftorah from the desk, set in on my lap and tried to concentrate on it, but my mind kept wandering back to Ricochet Rabbit and his partner Droop-a-long. Doing it. If I screwed up my bar mitzvah, I thought, so what?
The last thought I had before falling asleep on Friday night, the last words I spoke, in lieu of my prayers, were: “So what?”
Of course, I didn’t screw up my Bar Mitzvah the following morning. I stepped up to the stage at the Temple in my blue suit and tie, looked out at the congregation from behind the podium, and didn’t miss a single word, a single syllable, a single accent. I didn’t glance once at my haftorah, neither the original text nor the transliteration. I had the thing memorized. The Hebrew sounds flowed out of me as though I knew what they meant, as though I were thinking holy thoughts and giving them voice rather than staring down at my parents in the front row, noticing them holding hands and imagining them doing it.

Afterwards, the rabbi stepped forward and shook my hand. He spoke to me in front of the congregation for several minutes; the only words I can recall were, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Bar Mitzvah season in the ‘hood, circa 1970. That’s me, lower right.