It was for the standard little-girl reasons — prairie life, petticoats, ponies — that my sister and I loved watching Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. But perhaps equal blame should be assigned to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her irresistible boxed set of books. She’s the one who had a theme song first. She’s the one with the show broadcast during summer afternoons, when we were all otherwise restless with mosquito bites and squinty-eyed with sunshine. Losing interest in games outside, a land of dog poop and concrete and melting popsicles, we would inevitably settle into cool basement rooms and flip on the television.
It spread slowly across the continent like hostile African bees. Little girls started saying “maw” and “paw” in offensively-imitated twangs. We layered our parents’ paint clothes to look like farm women from the nineteenth century. We hauled out plastic buckets and stirred stone stews, keeping an eye out for swarms of locusts. Laura Ingalls Wilder gave Ye Olde Rural Life its cult-following amongst the young ladies, and I blame her for my eager acceptance of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman — and, thus, my discovery of sexy men.
My mom, sister and I had taken the Amtrak from Minneapolis to Little Rock to visit our Aunt Becky, Uncle Ken and two older cousins for a week or so. This was something we just did every so often, and the adventure was always met with great anticipation. Besides the awesome relatives, our cousins’ house was pretty rad for three reasons:
1. A small white pouf of a dog named Tinkerbell, who would chase any willing child relentlessly through the labyrinth of hallways. Tinkerbell never, ever tired of this game. Back and forth, up and down stairs. Barkbarkbarkbarkbark!
2. Back at our home, we had a VHS tape of an ’80s episode of The Price is Right. On it, our aunt and uncle could be seen jumping up and down, winning an entire living room and bedroom furniture set complete with self-playing piano.
It never seemed real to me. “That’s Aunt Becky?” I would say, not quite yet grasping the whole “people existed before you were born and have had adventures not including you” concept. I watched their eyes get wide, their hands go to their faces in shock, their heads thrown back in laughter as Bob Barker quipped caution. “That’s Uncle Ken?”
When we went to their house, we could roll on the Prize Waterbed. We would ask them to turn on the piano, and watch, enchanted, as it played on its own, just like in the movie.
It was as though Cinderella had just placed her slippered, Disney foot through the screen and stepped into their living room.
3. King’s Quest. Well, okay, first of all, they had a computer, which was crazy. But second of all, dude. King’s Quest.
My favorite was IV.
As usual, we arrived to find our cousins a little older, a little hipper. This visit brought admiration of make-up, Caboodles and scrunchies, a Garth Brooks poster gazing wistfully down the wall to a kingdom of stuffed animals on the bed. But Tinkerbell still chased us down the halls, Kings Quest still chirped chunky pixels of wizardry and flying apes in the basement, and the band played on. Essentially, it seemed, things were the same.
A few days into the trip, my sister plunked onto the couch and turned on the television for Doctor Quinn. I joined her. Our cousins followed. Then our aunt. And finally, even our mother — tyrant against all programming non-PBS, non-cooking-show, non-nature-adventure — wanted to sit down and watch Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman with us, for the first time in recorded history! It was like a slumber party. My sister and I moved to the floor to make room.
A television break came to an end. Chatter was briefly suspended. Everything felt cozy and familial. Then, one of the main male characters walked onscreen, and my life took a drastic turn.
“Ooo!” cried my aunt.
“Who’s that?” exclaimed my mom. They tittered from the couch. I looked up in alarm.
“That,” my sister patiently explained, “is Sully. He is a friend of the Cheyenne.”
“I like how his arms are always showing.”
“Yes, it’s nice when they show off their arms.”
“And he looks so concerned about her welfare.”
“I like when they’re concerned!”
They tittered some more. Throughout the show, points were elaborated upon, with some input from our cousins, on what was generally preferred in the male physique. Broad shoulders. Pretty eyes. Muscles were nice, but not too many muscles. Square jaws.
I sat resolutely on the soft carpet, examining this debate. I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about it. Maybe it seemed too formulaic for romantic love. Maybe it was pity for the men who didn’t fit that description, or maybe it was fear of those who did.
“I will never, ever, ever,” I vowed to myself then, “find that kind of man attractive.”
Surprisingly, this vow proved to be amazingly effective. I hit puberty determinedly crushing desperately on boys other girls found, for the most part, relatively un-noteworthy: boys who chewed their pencils certain ways, who tripped in hallways. Their diamond-in-the-roughness was key — if it seemed like other girls were picking up on said boy’s awesomeness, I was out of there. But I was never sure what drew me to them: a boy would do something in some amusing or desirable fashion and I would be what hello in love with them forever.* (*Some terms apply.)
I still remember staying after school for an art project in junior high: another student was working with me in the room, and his friend joined him. The friend was a little chubby, a little acne-prone, with very crooked teeth and a thick mop of black hair like a Beatle. He spoke entirely in a British accent.
When his friend left briefly, the other student rolled his eyes and noted that his friend wasn’t actually British.
“What!” I thought. “He was faking that the whole time?” Hearts spun in my eyes. The friend came back to grab his backpack.
“Wait!” I cried. “What is your name?”
“George!” he chirped back merrily. To this day, I’m not sure if he was lying about that, too.
Looking back on these years, my romantic inclinations seem almost idyllic. I was liking boys for who they were, not what they looked like. Yeah, go me!
Oh, and also, I didn’t find the male body generally desirable at all.
When I was kissed for the first time at the age of (nearly) 16 during The Truman Show, I pushed the instigator away and wrote about the trauma in horrific detail that night. It was our second date. I had been pining for him, and him alone, for nearly two years — I liked that he carried a copy of Inherit The Wind with him wherever he went.
Shortly after the attempted kiss, I broke up with him, repulsed by the fact that he seemed to want nothing more than more kisses.
“Maybe!” my parents said, “you’re gay.”
“I’m not anything!” I cried.
Obviously, my inability to feel chemistry with men changed, even just in the course of a few months. I was making out like a pro, and giving the experience a double thumbs-up. But I continued to distrust — nay, actively ignore — anyone in The Joe Lando Tradition. When my current boyfriend began hitting on me online two years ago, and asked if he could visit Boston for a roller-skating date, I nearly turned him down.
“What could we possibly have to talk about?” I worried. “Who could he possibly be, besides some hot dude?”
Turns out he could be a lot of things. Maybe Jurvis is the one responsible for all of this.
“I think,” I said to a friend the other day, “that I only just actually finished going through puberty. Now. At the age of twenty-five.”
“Uh, what do you mean?”
“Like, dude. Guys have nice bodies.”
“. . . yeah. And?”
“And I never really noticed that before. Like I’ve never found strangers attractive at all: usually they had to do something first, say something funny, demonstrate some uncanny ability, be cute in some other way. It was all carefully considered. I guess I needed romance first, before physical attraction.”
“Really? That’s weird.”
“I mean, it’s not that I’m tempted to cheat on my boyfriend or anything. It’s more like suddenly seeing in color. And really, this is just tons of fun.” I scanned the crowd on Newbury Street for an example. “Like, okay, dude . . . check out those arms, over there.”
They were indeed some nice arms. I imagined their owner saving me from a bear, and we tittered.