until it opens. He beats his right hand against the sides.

The letter’s been held up, he says, again. (I’ve failed, again.)

Outside, the sky is blankly black, the color of my gloves. Too cold to move, he clings to my arm. Ice gathers on his hood, forming a comical cap. He stops to cough, closing his eyes and breathing heavily. The return trip is always an exceedingly brief flash-forward. And there the dream ends.

Paradise, Soon Lost

Natalie celebrated her 10th birthday with 12 of her closest friends at Skate King, where the lights are low, the mirror ball glitters, the music crescendos every 30 seconds, and the bathrooms are labeled Kings and Queens. The girls, wearing rollerblades, seemed preternaturally tall, as if they were wearing high heels. My father had come up to Seattle from the Bay Area in honor of Natalie’s big day, and at the party he mentioned to me that Natalie looked a little plump, her belly edging over her waistband; I asked him if he ever gave it a rest.

Several of Natalie’s friends bought Best Friends split necklaces: one girl wears one half while her best friend wears the other. There was quite a competition for certain girls. Natalie’s best friend, Amanda, asked the DJ to play a Michelle Branch song, and when it came on, Amanda beamed.

Seeing the lights go off, all of the younger girls rushed onto the rink. They liked the dark setting, which made them feel less noticeable, and yet Natalie and several of her friends were wearing orange glow sticks. So they didn’t want their bodies to be noticed, but they did want their bodies to be noticed. This, I want to say, is the crux of the matter.

The girls skated backward. Then they skated in the regular direction. After a while they did the limbo. The DJ played the standards: “I Will Survive,” “Gloria,” “YMCA,” “Stayin’ Alive,” Madonna, the Black Eyed Peas, Avril Lavigne, Usher. Some of Natalie’s friends bought plastic roses for themselves. Two teenaged kids were feverishly making out in a far corner. Duly noted by my father, who informed the management—quickly remedied. A quirky Puritanism: his abhorrence of any public display of affection. Whenever Laurie and I go to a movie with him, if I put my arm around her or hold her hand, he inevitably—and unconsciously, I think—erupts into a coughing fit until the PDA ceases.

As the father of a daughter who remains a Skate King devotee, I find the place utterly terrifying. It’s all about amplifying kids’ sense of themselves as magical creatures and converting this feeling into sexual yearning—a group march toward future prospects. For Natalie and her friends, still, just barely, the purpose of Skate King is to dream about the opposite sex without having to take these romantic feelings seriously, let alone act on them. In the dark, Natalie held Amanda’s hand and lipsynched to Aaron Carter.

The last song of the afternoon was “The Hokey Pokey,” which, the DJ explained to me, “adults don’t care for.” Of course adults (with the exception of my father, who wanted to join in until Natalie frantically waved him off) don’t care for it; you wind up having to put your whole body in. What—Natalie and her friends were wondering— could that possibly consist of?

Girls develop breast buds between 8 and 10 years old, and full breasts between ages 12 and 18. Girls get their first pubic hair and armpit hair between ages 9 and 12, and they develop adult patterns of this hair between ages 13 and 14. I once heard statutory rape defended by the phrase “If there’s grass on the field, play ball.” In 1830, girls typically got their first period when they were 17. Thanks to improvements in nutrition, general health, and living conditions, the standard age in America is now 12 (12.75 in the 1960s, 12.5 in the early 1990s, and 12.3 early in this decade). Girls are getting fatter, which also helps trigger menstruation.

The average menstrual cycle is a little over 29 days. The moon’s cycle of phases is 29.53 days. According to Darwin, menstruation is linked to the moon’s influence on tidal rhythms, a legacy of our origin in the sea. For lemurs, estrus and sex tend to occur when there’s a full moon.

At age 9 or 10, a boy’s scrotum and testicles enlarge and his penis lengthens; at age 17, his penis has adult size and shape. Boys’ pubic hair, armpit hair, leg hair, chest hair, and facial hair start at age 12, with adult patterns of the hair emerging at 15. First ejaculation usually occurs at age 12 or 13; at 14, most boys have a wet dream once every two weeks. I’ve forgotten the names of nearly everyone I went to junior high school with, but I’ll never forget Pam Glinden or Joanne Liebes—best friends, bad girls, reputed “drug addicts”—to whose yearbook photos I masturbated throughout eighth grade. At the time, this activity seemed magical, private, perverse, unique, all- important. It wasn’t. It was blood flowing through me which, at some point in the not entirely unforeseeable future (18,000 days, say, at the outside), will no longer flow. My dad will be dead soon; one day I’ll be dead; despite—or perhaps because of—all the data gathered in this book, I still find those two facts overwhelming.

“The difference between sex and death,” explains Woody Allen, “is that with death you can do it alone and no one’s going to make fun of you.”

Boys are heavier and taller than girls because they have a longer overall growth period. The growth spurt in boys occurs between 13 and 16; a gain of four inches can be expected in the peak year. For girls, the growth spurt begins at 11, may reach three inches in the peak year, and is almost completed by 14. At 18, three-quarters of an inch of growth remains for boys and slightly less for girls, for whom growth is 99 percent complete. Between ages 15 and 18, I grew from 5?4? to 6?1?; I still visualize myself being small. Natalie, shorter than most of her classmates, is mad at me for not having my growth spurt until the end of high school. She can’t wait to “stretch out.”

When Natalie was 2, Laurie and I were putting on Natalie’s clothes to take her to day care. My father was visiting for the week. Natalie cried frantically, complaining that the clothes were the wrong clothes—this was the wrong color, that was too tight. She kept saying, “Mine, mine, mine.” Afterward, I asked my dad what he thought Natalie was trying to tell us, and he said, “She meant, ‘These limbs, these legs, these arms: they’re mine. Don’t do this to my body. It’s my body.’” I asked him if I ever did stuff like that as a kid, and he said, “Are you kidding? You drove me and your mother up a wall, especially that first year. What a crybaby!”

News Flash: We Are Animals

My friend Suzanne e-mailed me about her daughter: “Naomi is nine now, edging up to those perilous years, and while I realize that some awkwardness is inevitable for teenagers, I sense that for girls the body-confidence that is lost is often lost for good. I keep this image of Naomi in my mind: when she comes home from school, she likes to grab a yogurt from the fridge and eat it out on the deck while she hula hoops. She uses two hula hoops at once and she’ll stand practically still, barely twitching her nonexistent hips, spooning yogurt into her mouth and telling me about her day. The hula hoops spin around her as smoothly as satellites, as if there is some intense gravitational pull coming from inside of her. This ritual never ceases to leave me gaping in astonishment and gratitude. Where does this grace come from? My hunch is that her utter lack of self-consciousness about the pleasure it gives her to move her body renders her incredibly graceful. She has an anthem that I love. She’ll approach me very seriously and say, ‘Mom. Mom. I have to tell you something.’ She locks me into a deep stare and then suddenly she’s bouncing up and down in a dance that’s all knees and elbows, singing, ‘There’s a little bit of frog in all of us, no matter who you be!’”

• • •

When Natalie was 11, panda bears (sad-eyed, sedentary, round: cute) were her favorite things in existence. She made a board game entitled I’m Outta the Pound!: pets escape the pound and try to find a home. “Sex must be an okay thing,” she told me, “because people have sex to produce more life.” She still does stunningly accurate imitations of animals.

My favorite moment of Natalie’s weekly soccer game occurs when the game is over, the parents are handing out snacks, and all the girls are sitting in a circle, not really talking much but drinking their juices and eating their cookies, enjoying their bodies’ exhaustion, utterly in tune with themselves and one another. Sometimes my dad will be there and he’ll stop taking pictures for a minute and, his eyes misting, he’ll just revel and kvell in the moment, the fact and glory of physical existence.

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