My First Condom

June 7, 1968

I’d rather be in so many other places than here. In line to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Waiting for Jimi Hendrix to go on at some festival. Prowling through a used book barn in Wyoming. Instead, I’m standing at the counter of the only drugstore in Windsor, Colorado. I’m almost 21 and home from school for the summer. The store’s empty except for Mr. Mercer, who’s leaning on the counter reading a newspaper he’ll probably unload onto the next customer. Not me.

Because I’m not here for newspapers.

I harrumph and he looks up.

“Sorry,” he says. “Didn’t see you. Hello. How are you, uh, George?”

“George? You mean my brother Georgy?”

“Sorry, I mistook . . . “

“I call him Georgy-Boy. He hates it.”

No reaction.

“Like in the movie?”

The blankest of blank stares.

“And the song?” I start singing it. “Hey therrrrre . . . “

A slight flinch of the head, like an old warhorse hearing cannon fire from the far-off Battle of Austerlitz. But if he’s pondering a polite grin, he shitcans the idea and sharpens his gaze instead.

“And who might you be?”

“Paul. But everybody calls me Paulie for short.”

I wait. Another non-reaction. This pharmacist’s a tough crowd. He approaches the counter.

“What can I do for you, Paulie?”

I point at the condom display just out of reach.

“Ah, the prophylactics cabinet.”

I nod. He unlocks it.

“They’re called ‘prophylactics’ you know, not ‘rubbers’ or ‘safes.’ Prophylactic is the proper scientific term.”

Makes sense. Mr. Mercer doesn’t call his drugstore a drugstore, but an “apothecary.” Mercer’s Apothecary.

“So which kind you want?”

“You got a really big selection. What you recommend?”

“Thank you. We try. A lot of people go with the Trojan prophylactic. They’re three for a dollar.” Mr. Mercer picks up the small box, leans close to me and points to the corner. His wire-framed glasses are so thick I can hardly see his eyes. Just smeary blobs of color obscuring any possible eyelash. I have wireframe glasses too, but not from 1936. Mine are 1966 models, just like John Lennon’s.

“Says here,” he says, “they’re ‘ribbed for her pleasure.’”

“Ribbed? What’s that mean? Ideal Marriage[1] didn’t say anything about ribbed condoms.”

“It’s right here on the box.”

“Are they lubricated?” I’d heard that was a distinct advantage.

He scrunches up his face. I can’t tell whether he’s annoyed or just thinking.

“Don’t think so, but if you have to, you can apply Vaseline to them.[2] We stock that too, third aisle over.”

I sigh. This choosing’s harder than I thought.

“We also got the Sheik.” He pointed to the next box. “Says here it comes with a ‘special reservoir tip.’”

“Reservoir tip? That sounds huge.”

“Not really. It’s just a little nub at the end. Catches more fluid, apparently.”

“Why couldn’t you just not pull it on all the way?”

This time he harrumphs, maybe because he overvisualized. He moves to the next shelf.

“Here we have the Cadillac of prophylactics, the Fourex. It’s not latex like the others, but lambskin. Fine lambskin.”

“You mean like kid gloves?”

“Suppose so. Allegedly, they provide more sensitivity.”

“Could it be because they’re made out of leather?”

He briefly smiles. “Yes, extra very fine leather. And that’s why they’re more expensive. Three dollars, package of three. Works out to a dollar apiece. The Bargain Pak is twelve for $11.99. And they’re lubricated.”

He opens the box lid and shakes out a little blue plastic case.

“Looks hard to open.”

“I’ve heard that. Also heard some people use their teeth to do so. May or may not be true. If so, I hope it’s just the back ones. You’ve also got to line up this dot correctly.” He points to a tiny white mark that could be difficult to see in the dark.

“That’d be challenging. You know, in the heat of passion.”

He says nothing, moves not one wrinkle. My comment splats on the brown-specked linoleum.

He leans even closer, as if they are scores of people nearby trying to listen in. “Paulie, to tell you the truth, I’m really not comfortable selling these to my customers. They’re actually quite fragile. They’ve been known to rupture and . . . release their contents.” Then he pushes out his arms as if imitating a sluice gate flooding the town below.

I hesitate, unsure whether he’s talking about condoms in general, or just Fourex ones.

“So, you want them or not?”

I hand over my three dollars and leave. I walk the mile and a half home and go into my bedroom and open the package, dropping the little containers into my knapsack, being careful to wrap the box in used tissues before tossing it.

June 9, 1968

Sunday afternoon and my mother approaches me. “Your father would like to see you down the store.”

I lazily close my book and peer up from the couch.

“When you have a moment, your excellency.”

He probably wants me to help stock the cases of Seagram’s 7 that have just come in. He isn’t allowed to sell at his store on Sundays so today’s stocking day. I take the VW down.

I tap on the glass door of the High Street Liquor Mart with my class ring and he lets me in. Then he gestures me into the back room where he has a two-way mirror to survey the store and his thieving counter help. There’s a loaded .38 on the corner table to waste all intruders.

“Sit down.”

I don’t. “You need help with something?”

“You been with her again.”

I look at him like I don’t know what he’s talking about. That riles him.

“You have, haven’t you?” he asks, his voice rising.

“Who might that be?”

“The girl down the street. What’s-her-name. Taffy. No, Candy.”

I shake my head. “Close. Her name is Candace. She hates ‘Candy.’ And actually, no, I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

Again, I shake my lying head.

“You know she’s underage. Back in my day they called her type ‘jailbait.’ Any time they could be hauling you off in handcuffs.”

“You think so?”

“Heard also she’s Protestant.”

“Never heard her talk religion.” A lie. We frequently make fun of priests, nuns, ministers, even the Pope himself. And in our neighborhood we aren’t the only ones.

He digs into his pocket and tosses the empty Fourex box on the desk. “You haven’t seen her, then explain this.”

This takes me by surprise. How’d they find it so quick? I don’t know how to respond intelligently, so I try honesty. “Shouldn’t you be glad I’m using them?”

That doesn’t go over too well.

He paces around the little room and stops, unnervingly, at the pistol table. “You know these things are . . . unreliable. They’re very not sturdy. They’ve been known to rupture and spill their contents.”

“Good to know. I’ll keep that in mind,” I say. So that’s how they found out. A spy in my midst. Like the time Tony the mailman ratted and told them Candace was getting letters delivered from Colorado College. Where I’ve been the last three years.

Sold down the river for a Christmas tip.

“Plus, and you should know this already. Having relations with a woman outside of marriage is a mortal sin.”

“Yup. Heard that.”

He says “Get out my sight.”

“You don’t want any boxes unloaded?”

I wonder if he’s going to step closer to the pistol table, just for emphasis mind you, not that he would brandish. He doesn’t, because he doesn’t need to.

He thrusts a steely, awesomely straight index finger six inches from my face.

“And you stay away from her. That’s your last warning.”

What he’s saying’s probably bullshit, like what he often wags in front of my face about grass being addictive. The condoms won’t be a problem. They’ll probably work perfectly wherever Candace and I jump on each other next. In her bedroom when no one is home. In the spacious vacant lot at night, which we call “the field.” In the abandoned trailer on nippy January days. Sometimes even in the backseat of our ’64 Volkswagen in the Unitarian Church parking lot. (In winter we must drive it twenty minutes to warm it up.) Our lust overpowers us at all times. It’s like a fat corgi yapping at us until we toss it a Gaines-burger. Sometimes we are compelled to do it three times in an hour. Whenever I drive home from college, for the last ten miles all I think about is squeezing her breasts closer than a blanket in a blizzard. We write each other poems, callow erotica, and hers are way better than mine. Once she wrote that her sexual feelings were “burning sweets turning within.”

We are deeply in love. We want to live with each other as soon as we escape Windsor. We intend to never marry.

June 11, 1968

Candace looks up and stares into my eyes, with hers hardly an inch away.

“So’d you get them?”

It’s two days later and we’ve already spent a couple hours kissing in the field late at night under a moonless sky, half cloudy, half speckled with stars. Kissing is our number one priority. Everything else takes second, third . . . tenth place. Gazing at the Hieronymus Bosch day-glo poster taped on my wall, attending anti-Vietnam War demos, checking out be-ins at the Denver City Park, reciting A Coney Island of the Mind, hearing Electric Ladyland over and over, even wolfing down double-cheese anchovy pizzas. When kissing is involved, everything else goes missing like used record albums at a thrift store. For three whole summers, there’s been this sharp divider between two vastly different activities in our lives: kissing and thinking about kissing.

She loves it when I bring a book of poetry to read out loud:

A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
And beauty, all concentrating like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above,
. . .
Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss’s strength,
I think it must be reckoned by its length.[3]

Of course that too evolves into kissing. Long, long kisses. Kisses newly thawed from years of Catholic school celibacy. Kisses to remember for decades.

“Let’s try one out!” says Candace.

We do and there’s no problem whatsoever. It doesn’t rupture, or leak, or slip off, or anything. And what that coot Mercer said is true. It feels (almost} like going in bareback.

“Wow, that was great,” she says. “From here it’s like you’re not wearing one at all.”

“Would you have preferred it ribbed?”


“Never mind. Forget it.”

“How many you got left?”

“Just two.”

“So you gonna get more?”

  1. Theodore Van der Velde, in Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, (1928).
  2. Bad idea. Vaseline degrades latex condoms.
  3. Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, CLXXXVI
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Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog The Bodega Project.

2 thoughts on “My First Condom”

  1. This is really, really good! Definitely has the ring of teenage authenticity. The detail. The man behind the counter. Your father. Quite enjoyable to read and takes me back to when I was that age.

    The only thing that is confusing and I would change is geography. In other stories you mentioned growing up in the Greater Boston area. Here you mentioned being in Windsor Ontario and then a couple days later you mention being in Denver.

    1. Thank you so much! Sorry you were confused about location. Windsor, CO is about a fifty minute drive from Denver. North. This account, from a new larger work I’ll tell you more about when next we meet, is based on real people (whose identities I disguised). I changed the location as well. Alas, we live in litigious times.

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