Purchasing condoms when you’re 16 can be life altering. There are lots of choices to make. A misstep can mean eighteen years of accidental responsibility, or painful shots to clear up unplanned infections. But what should be a straightforward decision can easily end up a complex evaluation of options.
In 1984, I’m a newly minted, sixteen year old driver when we pull into a parking spot at Thrifty, a southern California predecessor to Walgreens. The radio plays the Thompson Twins, Hold Me Now, and my best friend—also Robert—sits in the passenger seat of my 1966, canary yellow Chevy Caprice, trying to work up the courage to open the door to his future.
Robert and I grew up together and attended the same grade school. But due to geographic boundaries, we are at different high schools. We both work, manage full class loads, and have increasingly diverging interests. We don’t hang out as much lately, but we remain close friends.
This spring Saturday afternoon finds us celebrating Robert’s prom, or rather what he hopes will be post-prom festivities. Robert’s girlfriend implied there would be some after party extracurricular activities for which he should prepare. In Robert’s words, “She was specific, ‘no condom, no sex.’”
Sixteen is a critical age when everything starts coming together. Most of us got a driver’s license. Many bought used cars we’d saved for since mowing our first lawn. We enjoyed the freedom that came with four wheels, driving across the southland on a whim. We even saw the light at the end of the crappy high school tunnel—graduation on the horizon. Right or wrong, when we were 16, breaking the elusive virginity barrier was an integral part of becoming an adult.
Robert’s problem is confidence, or rather a lack thereof. In order to obtain condoms, Robert needs to purchase them, which means walking into Thrifty, picking out a box, and interacting with a cashier. Robert is equipped for none of this.
I, on the other hand, am perfectly equipped to handle a simple condom purchase. I was ten when my mom sent me into a store to purchase tampons. Initially, I argued against it, but it turned out to be an excellent, if not mortifying experience. If you want to teach a boy confidence, send him in alone to buy Tampax for his mother. He will never be embarrassed about anything again.
“Can you buy them?” Robert finally asks, holding out a twenty dollar bill.
I knew it was going to come to this. I take Robert’s money and head for Thrifty.
Thrifty’s are a lot like Walgreens where every store has essentially the same layout. I know the condoms are kept back by the pharmacy—because even though you don’t need a prescription, they can still be lethal. I walk back to where they should be displayed and stop dead when I see the shelf crowded with sunscreen.
I glance around and walk along a few of the aisles adjacent to the pharmacy. Where are they?After a few minutes there isn’t another choice, Robert needs his tiny rain suits—I have to ask someone.
The pharmacist stands behind an elevated counter helping another customer. I’m in line with two others who look like death warmed over. I wait patiently—prom is hours away—finally, it’s my turn.
“Can I help you?” the pharmacist asks.
She’s cheerfully blonde. Not a classical Michelle Pfeiffer blonde. Rather more like the 1984 California bleach blond we see on Chrissy in Three’s Company. Her skin is tan and she smiles helpfully. I estimate she’s somewhere in her late thirties and think she’s pretty for an old woman. Every woman over 25 was old when I was sixteen.
Asking for a condom seems so white trash. Instead, I decide to lay a bit of maturity on her and ask, “Yes, can you tell me where I might find the prophylactics?” Bam! A four-syllable word to make me seem like an adult.
“Excuse me?” she asks, still sporting a bright, friendly smile.
Shoot. I’m going to have to say it again. “The prophylactics, ma’am. Where are the prophylactics?” I query.
“I’m sorry? What are you looking for sweetie?” she asks, leaning closer, her gracious smile still beaming.
This is the dumbest pharmacist on the planet. Here I am expending vast amounts of intellectual resources to find sophisticated words to describe unsophisticated products so that I don’t sound like a pervert, and here she is not even smart enough to consider what a horny 16 year old boy might be asking for in a pharmacy. My patience is expended.
“Where [pause for effect] are the rubbers?” I blurt out loud enough for the few remaining customers to hear.
At this point I figure fun time with the cute teenager is over and the blonde, thirty-something, likely-mother is considering the ramifications of a boy with a box of condoms. I believe this because the once smiling face is now scowling, her mouth is widening, and her eyes are like small slits as she squints in disgust. She pauses a moment, sizing me up, probably wondering if I am the boyfriend her daughter still hasn’t introduced to her. “It is prom season,” she thinks to herself, remembering her own prom. Her daughter is going to have a lot of explaining to do.
“They are over there,” she growls, pointing in the direction of the sunscreen rack.
In retrospect, I believe my mistake was in calling her “ma’am.” Darn strict upbringing failed me today.
I make a beeline in the direction indicated by her rigid finger. Sure enough, the condoms are two aisles past the sunscreen. I’m ready to grab a box of little insurance policies and head for the door when I realize I’m in trouble. I’m frozen by the thought of Robert’s, um, physique.
Here’s the problem—Robert is black and I’m not.
Today, at 49 years old, that sounds ridiculous to even consider. But for a 16 year old, it was a major conundrum.
I’d heard the stories about black men having larger parts, but in all of our years of friendship I’d never actually seen Robert’s willy, nor did I ever think to ask of it’s overall stature. It simply never came up in conversation. Even at 49 I can only remember three males who’s penis I’ve seen: mine, our son’s when he was a kid, and our grandson—who I know is our son’s son because he used to take great joy in waving that thing around like some kind of tiny fire hose. Neither Robert nor any other friend is on that list.
The rack is full of condoms. There are literally dozens of different makes and models for every type and style. There are ribbed, ultra ribbed, ultra thin, natural, mega, magnum, regular, sensitive, lubed, grooved, flavored, intense, ecstasy, double ecstasy, her pleasure, and your pleasure. In 2017 there are websites and mobile phones, but back in 1984 you couldn’t just text your friend a URL and ask him for specs.
I am panicked. This is a much bigger decision than buying tampons for my mom. This is going to be Robert’s first time bumping uglies with a member of the opposite sex. If anything goes wrong, he will be scarred for life. Even setting aside the aesthetic options, purchasing the wrong size can have dire consequences. What if it breaks? I will be to blame for little Robert Jr.
I scan the shelves again, hoping to see something familiar. I’m becoming desperate. I can’t stand here all day staring at a rack of rubbers. Finally, I spot a box of Trojan Ribbed, regular size—my size. I walk directly to the checkout counter hoping this will be over soon.
I’m the only one in line when I lay the box on the conveyor and watch it slowly ferry toward the cashier. It’s like the speed is set to purposely be painful.
The cashier is an old woman in her early forties. She picks up the box, tumbling it about on three-axes to find the bar code. She realizes she is scanning a box of condoms and looks at me. “Are these for you?” she asks, surprised.
What is it with these people? I want to scream, “I’m not having sex with any of your daughters! Yes, they are probably having sex, probably while you’re at work and in your bed! But not with me!” But instead I simply reply, “Yes. Are you going to ring them up, or are they free today?” Frankly, I’m a little ticked about the entire event.
She rifles off the price and shoots me a disapproving look. I want to tell her she should be happy I’m buying these, because now her daughter won’t get pregnant at prom tonight. But I leave well enough alone, pay, collect Robert’s change, and head for the car.
Robert is still sitting in the passenger seat and listening to Air Supply’s Making Love Out Of Nothing At All. I’m treading softly on slivers of what remain of my last nerve.
“What took you so long?” He asks.
I toss him the box. “Next time buy your own condoms.”
Years later I’m married and at the grocery store with a shopping list from my wife. The fourth item down reads, “tampons.” I find the aisle—this time without needing to ask for directions—and stare at a wall of choices. There are literally dozens of different brands, sizes, and styles, and I’m overwhelmed with emotional memories of that day in Thrifty.
I consider the selection for awhile as the panic builds. I’m older and less apt to fly off the handle when confronted with stupid, judgmental people, but memories are powerful triggers.
In my head I develop an arbitrary list of criteria based on certain physical features of which I am familiar, and eventually grab a box that I think will work. I’m better informed about my wife’s physique than I was about Robert’s.
I pay for the groceries, which, thankfully, is uneventful—not even a glance from the cashier as she scans the box. When I arrive home my wife doesn’t comment, which means by some miracle I made the right choice. She has no idea the memories one box of tampons generated.
If I never buy another condom or tampon again it will be too soon.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.