When my sister and I both turned twelve, my father bought us a dog. It was a pretty cute dog, a chocolate lab puppy, and when Melissa opened the box it hopped out madly and tackled her and she fell back onto the carpet giggling and the dog licked her face like you sometimes see in commercials. I stood beside her and watched disheartened—partly because the dog had chosen to celebrate her birthday and not mine, but mainly because I had really wanted a chemistry set.

"What are you going to name him?" my mother asked.

"Thomas, why the hell did you name Linda ‘Puberty'?" He took a swig of beer and sloshed it around in his cheeks. "Seems like a pretty strange name for a snake." "Midnight," my sister said instantly. Whether she had prepared for this moment—plotted the stupid name from the beginning or not—I'm not sure. Now I sometimes think that the name had an intuition about it, a childish prophecy for the dog's brief and dark presence in our fucked-up household.

So it was still my birthday too. My sister rolled around on the floor with the dog and I moped into the kitchen to eat some cake. Given the anesthetic quality of a good yellow cake—and that this was the first cake of two that was made for our birthdays and therefore mine, the older by ten minutes—I sat in the kitchen until the small party cleared outside, to enjoy the late summer evening. I finished another slice, then another, then another with ice cream when I thought of adding ice cream, until the cat walked in the kitchen.

That Damn Cat. She was a tabby and very skinny and she fit inside a cup when my sister tried it for a photograph when we'd found her. I had found her mewing, holding on to the lip of a sharp, rocky cliff for her pitiable life one day on a walk when Melissa and I were seven. I had lied to my parents that she hadn't scratched me and said "She's starving." "Well, what do you want to name the damn thing?" my father asked me.

"That Damn Cat," I said. I had been going through a bit of a rebellious phase at the time, having recently felt the first tinglings of real manhood. To get through the first years of that war, for my arsenal, I labeled much of my life in ironically simple terms—in ways my father might have put it—partly to mock the simplicity of lower-middle income suburbia, partly to mock a lonely childhood in the middle of the dark and eerie woods, and partly because I thought it was funny to make fun of my father.

Now, That Damn Cat was curious about the new smell in the house, the repugnant musty odor of Midnight wafting to her higher senses. She stalked between my legs and looked at me but didn't meow, which seemed to say to me, in her hard cockney accent, "Well Thomas, what the fuck is this all?"

"Hell if I know, gov-nah," I said. I stuck my finger in the icing of the cake and bent down to cat. She smelled the icing and looked at me again. She sat down and looked at me. I entered a silent competition with her—staring into her yellow eyes as I had been prone to do—until I obviously lost. "Alright," I said, and I left the moonlit room to thank my parents for the thoughtful birthday present.

It was a few months later when Puberty attacked the puppy. Puberty was my snake's name. I had let her out of her tank and the stupid mutt thundered into the room and was immediately struck, without the pleasantries of a deathrattle. Midnight yalped and I yelled "Get him out of the room!" and after some family debate I was forced to kill the snake known as Linda to the rest of my family. Kill her with a shovel, in the driveway, right after dessert. I don't want to talk about that, only that at the funeral later that night, during the eulogy, I told my family her real name.

Then, after I dug the hole and put the orange shoebox in, my father asked, "Thomas, why the hell did you name Linda ‘Puberty'?" He took a swig of beer and sloshed it around in his cheeks. "Seems like a pretty strange name for a snake."

"Her name wasn't ever Linda," I said, "so I never named her anything but Puberty."

"You didn't? Where the hell did Linda come from?"

"Mom's coworker is named Linda and you don't like her," Melissa said.

My mother scowled.

"Alright, then why did you name your snake Puberty?"

I told him that I had heard the word itself from a guidance counselor, and that an older girl named Carmella told me that the word had to do with snakes. That this happened and that I believed it, was true. I stood for a minute, feeling a suckered literalist.

"Well that's fine," my mother sighed, with perhaps too much relief. She went inside and brought out a glass of chocolate milk, a way she soothed my grief that she always considered to be greater than what it actually was.

"You're weird," Melissa said. "Puberty. That's not a very pretty name."

"I'm eccentric," I said, and the November wind blew in and when they were all gone I said to the bright orange shoebox, "Rest in peace, Puberty."

A few days later it was Sunday and I was still moping around the house. At dinner, I didn't touch the fish nuggets and the green beans got cold and plastic-tasting and that was enough for me to stop.

"Don't you have a game of Hearts tonight Frank?" my mother asked my father.

"Yeah, z'why I'm drinking now," he said. He tapped the top of his beer can lightly.

"Can Thomas play too? I'm sure it could help his mind get off of this whole thing."

"You think you can handle it, in your emotional state?" my father asked me.

"I can," I said. I was pretty good at Hearts, even back then. I finished the dinner's chocolate milk in one deleterious gulp. "Let's go set up."

My father and I moved the card table down to the basement while my mom and Melissa watched and tied a new bandage around Midnight's paw. "You're so cute," my sister said, shaking his injured paw gently. "What a gentleman!" she shouted. My mother laughed and within a minute of them walking up stairs, I could hear and smell popcorn popping in the microwave.

My father always had two of his best friends over—Greg and Keith—and they'd bring a fourth that alternated between dusty-faced rednecks from the train yard and random slobbering bums from his favorite bar. This night, it was Saul. He was a skinny yokel with yellow-brown teeth who made the room smell like wet sawdust. I didn't understand a lot of the words he used, but by the slightly embarrassed way my father laughed, I know most of the conversation was vulgar. I kept quiet and played my cards. These were the man-versions of the boys at school who beat me up, and I was happy to picture this night being something I'd never see as a successful adult, away from these woods and the train yard and The Looking Glass Bar. A family I didn't need beer to be a part of.

My ears burned. Not because I was embarrassed at the stupid non sequitur, but because I knew this word.  Nympho. The guys in my grade had been calling Lindsey Klein it all year. "Get that gruesome look off your mug," my father said, and I monitored my face.

When the old men got drunk, I began winning, and when I was winning by a lot the game slowed down. The old men talked about beer, then work, then somehow got on the subject of Lindsey Klein. She was the girl in a grade above me who had gotten pregnant by Rock Piacco, a senior linebacker on the public school team.

"A little whore," Keith said." All those Klein girls are whores."

"Easy Keith, she's just a girl," Greg said. "And some of us got kids her age."

I know one thing, my father traded three cards out and picked up his new lot; my Melissa won't be doing any of that bullshit. I'd kick her ass to next summer.

Saul tipped his beer at my father, agreeing, "You can't have no baby in a coma."

After the first trick was played for that round, my father went on to say, "And you better not get a girl pregnant until you're out of this house and got a job and a life and a college degree. We don't need you naming a baby Uterus or whatever other shit you come up with now."

I huffed and gritted my teeth and played my hand stupidly for a few tricks and the old men laughed. The conversation soon moved and not long after, it was redneck Saul who was saying how much skin he got in high school. Then, a broader conversation about how much they wanted it from their wives and weren't getting any—my father remaining quiet. Finally, Saul asked me, "You a freshman, right?"

"I skipped eighth grade," I said proudly, my one time to brag.

"You get any skin yet?" Saul asked.

"Naw," I admitted.

"Well, hell, when I was yer age, I was a nym-pho!" Saul shouted and laughed.

My ears burned. Not because I was embarrassed at the stupid non sequitur, but because I knew this word. Nympho. The guys in my grade had been calling Lindsey Klein it all year and I had seen the girl and wanted to know what she was so I could find more of her. I knew the word well. I had groped at myself thinking the word. Really, Saul had used it wrong.

"Actually," I said. The old men stared at me over the fans of their cards. They were skeptical to a degree that I only learned much later, one that only occurs when very drunk.

"You can't be a nymphomaniac," I said. I recited from memory. "It's a… gendered term. Only women can be nymphomaniacs."

The room filled with air, Saul looked back at his cards, "Frank you wanna get a grip on your smartass boy over there?"

"He ain't right," my father said, and conceded to his friend with a shameful shake of his head. I looked at my father and wondered, What the hell, old man?

"I don't know," Greg said, coming out from his stupor, "I'd bet some good money here that this boy knows better'n you, Saul."

"You wanna put some money—some cash—where yer fat wop mouth is?"

Greg turned to me, "How sure are ya boy?"

"I'll put down my allowance from the two weeks," I said.

"How much is that?"

"Eight dollars," I said, a little upset, a little embarrassed that this wage had recently gone down.

"That's a mighty lot," Greg patronized.

"I have over a two hundred dollars in my bank account," I said.

Saul coughed loudly slopped a dip of chew in his gum and said, "I ain't wrong. I'll see both of your six dollars. Hell, I'll go two to one."

I ran to get the dictionary.

Upstairs, my mother and Lissa were watching Old Yeller. They had a roll of toilet paper in front of them, but their faces were still dry. They hadn't gotten to the sad part, when the dog dies and Melissa remembers how she shook its hand, thinking him asleep.

"Are you boys having fun?" my mother asked.

"I'm winning," I said proudly.

"Go get em!"

"Nymphomaniac," I returned, "a woman with a compulsive desire to have sex with many different men."

The basement was quiet though I think my father was a little impressed.

My mother yelled down the stairs, "What was that?"

"Go to bed," my father yelled back.

Greg stood up and smacked Saul upside the head. "Thanks Tommy," he said. "I got a new pack of smokes out of the deal." He handed me twelve dollars and Saul said, "Well then what the god's green hell do you call the man version of a nympho?"

The room sat thinking. "I guess you just call him a man," my father said. The room erupted with laughter, until the old men noticed that I was laughing, that I had gotten the joke.

School was strange the next day. I went through most of the first two periods watching the girls, wondering where it all had come from, wondering if I could get them pregnant and if I'd have to drink and burp and scratch my balls. I had learned about my attraction to the female form from a Playboy I'd stolen from my Uncle Phil at a Thanksgiving dinner when I was eleven, and that all of it led to babies seemed fair enough. I wasn't naïve or stupid, only a fairly fat boy. Sex seemed like a remote fantasy, an unattainable island I was too chubby to swim too, or perhaps too desperately flailing in the ocean, not knowing the stars of manhood well enough to navigate there. I spent a lot of the day thinking of how sex must be like seeing the ocean for the first time. That I had been in love with a lot of those girls, had groped myself thinking about some of them already wasn't what concerned me most then. The old men had been crude and cruel and at least one woman wanted them. I didn't want to be that way, but one is better than none.

Before the lunch bell rang, I remembered Carmella Beavers. I tutored her in English during lunch hour. Carmella was named by the boys at the school "Snow White and the Seven STDs," which I didn't think was funny, but for more reasons than it was simply not clever. Carmella was a bubble-headed bleach-blonde junior who wore silver lipstick and had the unquestionably best tits in the entire high school. She was a cheerleader, had pale skin and blue eyes that stuck with me so much, in fact, that several years after this whole ordeal when I heard she was a stripper, I saved up some money and gave her enough for a lap dance, then told her instead that I'd like to take her out to dinner. She had said, "I got professional standards, Tommyknocker," which didn't make me as upset as I thought—because she had used such formal language because of me (I had gotten her D- up to an A- in two semesters), and because she called me the nickname she gave me during our tutoring sessions and because I hadn't been able to get the guts to even look at the cheerleaders' dance during halftime and she was the one who took enough pity on me to use me.

I was lonely and chubby and sick of the hopeless feelings after masturbation, suffocation, the heart-lock of hormones pulsing through my brain.But that afternoon in the corner of the empty library, I ate my packed lunch and told Carmella that she was full of shit. I mollified the phrasing I used, of course, because her boyfriend was a hotheaded punker named Tyler Brass who once stuffed me in a locker. "You lied to me," I said. It was the first time I'd ever talked to her about anything but verbs and nouns and adverbs and she seemed shocked.

"What do you mean?" she asked. She looked up from a list of vocabulary words I had given her.

"Puberty," I said. "It doesn't have to do with snakes. I looked it up last night."

"Oh," she giggled. "I don't get to make fun of you very often. You're very smart, Tommyknocker." She looked down, "And I'm not very smart."

"I don't know words like that," I admitted. "And you're not dumb at all."

"You don't think so?"

"I wouldn't try to help somebody I thought was dumb," which was a lie.

"Do you know what eating out is?" she asked me.

"You mean like Kentucky Fried Chicken?" I asked. (Parenthetically: a little anecdote I sometimes tell to endear myself at late night parties, when I'm too tired to really talk about my childhood.)

"No," she giggled again. She placed the English textbook up on the desk and leaned in to whisper in my ear, "It means licking pussy."

"A cat?" I asked loudly. I thought of That Damn Cat.

"No." Her eyes widened and she smiled and nervously licked a little silver off her lips, then whispered.

"Look here," and she showed me her panties. Lime green cotton panties. "A pussy. You'll know in a few years," she leaned back and sat the book down, then reapplied her lipstick.

I hadn't known it was called that, honestly, but I didn't care. I didn't care to explain myself. I didn't care about the repercussions. I had had enough of Carmella Beavers shoving her tits in my face without meaning of sex, still on a power high from correcting redneck Saul about the use of a word. I was lonely and chubby and sick of the hopeless feelings after masturbation, the suffocation, the heart-lock of hormones pulsing through my brain, the girls smiling at each other but never at me. I was sick of not knowing the simplest ways to touch with words and her panties were lime green and a few gold-dipped hairs brushed out of them and she was everything I wanted right then, right there, forever. I put my chubby hand on Carmella Beavers' downy thigh and leaned in to the sheet of bleached hair and whispered in her ear, "Can I touch your pussy?"