Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob:
Why I Listen To My Children Breathe

Photo by Seniju
Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob:
Why I Listen To My Children Breathe by Jesse Goolsby

I’m a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout at summer camp, and the rumor is that the California Department of Fish and Game tranquilizes trouble-making black bears from Yosemite and transports them up for a second chance in my backyard (and summer camp location), Lassen Volcanic National park. It’s a calm July afternoon and I’m napping in my tent when the shouts of “bear” arrive. I jump out of the tent, my mind spinning images of gargantuan, blood soaked beasts. I peer towards the spot where everyone points, across a yellow grass clearing, maybe fifty yards away. The bear is smaller than I feared, a gorgeous, glowing blonde with its nose in the air. I hear my inner voice say black bear, my mind already trying to reconcile the description. Our scout leaders blow into small whistles and one idiot kid steps forward and unsheathes his camera before being yanked back. The blonde bear starts slowly in our direction, and it’s then that we’re rounded up quickly and led away. As we trudge our way up a hill, the two camp counselors who had taught us black powder shooting and hatchet throwing earlier in the week come screaming by us, heavy rifles and black powder horns in hand, headed for our camp and the bear. They are dressed as frontiersmen: buckskin pants, thin, half-buttoned shirts, wide-brimmed hats. Earlier, during the hatchet lesson, they proudly claimed that they hadn’t showered in two weeks, “like mountain men.” As they pass I hear one of them say, “Goddamn.”

A safe distance away, near the rudimentary showers and chow hall, our group is told to sit in a circle. Our fidgety Scout Master passes melting chocolate chip granola bars around and then folds his arms.

“Must be an asshole Yosemite bear,” he says. “Our food was up in the trees.” I’m not sure whom he’s talking to because he stares down at the dirt between his feet. He puts his hand to his mouth.

“We’ll hear the shot,” the kid next to me says excitedly. “We’re close enough.”

No one else says anything, all of us chewing as quietly as possible, waiting for the echo.

After the Risky Business episode, I decide I need an answer on the possible masturbation-makes-you-go-to-hell situation. The HBO free trial is running out and my desires aren’t on any downward slope that I can perceive. I work up the nerve and finally ask the bishop. He tries his best, and walks me through some lust tangents that seem to all center around the idea that sex is the most beautiful thing in the world, but only in the missionary position with a wife trying to bear children. The advice is to the effect of, “Have sex like Jesus is watching.”

Even today, I’m not sure what that means, or, more terrifying, what that looks like. Christ at the footboard keeping score? Worse yet, suggesting improvements? When we get to it my trusted advisor tells me my masturbation question isn’t addressed directly in scripture. That doesn’t prevent him from saying, “Go check out the story of Onan and pray about it.”

Onan’s story in four sentences: (1) Onan, son of Judah, has a brother named Er who God kills because…well, it’s not specified. (2) Judah (through God) tells Onan to sleep with Er’s now widowed wife, so she can produce offspring. (3) Onan is rocking and rolling with said widowed wife, when he pulls out and “spills his seed on the ground,” pissing off God. (4) God slays Onan.

Fourteen-year-old mind translates: So, don’t pull out early if you’re having sex with your dead brother’s wife, or God will kill you.

It’s 9 a.m., and I’m twenty-one years old. It’s the morning after I’ve lost my virginity in a Colorado Springs hotel room to my college girlfriend. I walk through a parking lot, swinging my car keys in a small orbit around my index finger, now convinced that all the songs about making love until the sun comes up are full of shit. I take in the front range of the Rocky Mountains—sky-high Pike’s Peak with its pockets of green pine, and to the south, some nasty, dark gray weather moving in fast. I consider the fact that I now live in a world where I’ve had sex; I’m a little surprised I feel good, but mostly the same. I try my hardest to focus on the joy, the fun awkwardness, the fact that I may get to do it again, and push away any thoughts of spiritual doom, but as I get to my car the weather arrives: a massive dust storm blanketing the sky in a dizzying mash of spinning brown. This is no regular storm; it crescendos into a reckoning of earth and sky, dry lightning pounding among vortexes of zooming grit.

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Jesse Goolsby is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His work has appeared in Narrative, Epoch, The Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Redivider, and the Best American series. He is the nonfiction editor at The Southeast Review.