By the time I was eight or nine I had had a few girl friends, with whom I played, the way I played with the guys.  I just got along with them better.   But I would get invited over, especially to the home of the sisters, Eva and Lily, where I would be the only boy present.

Another old photograph shows me in my grungy overalls and ratty running shoes, standing tall beside a very trim Eva and Lily and their little five year old cousin.  We did everything together.  We wrestled.   I preferred wrestling with Eva, who was my age and who I thought of as my girlfriend, but I would wrestle with the others too, just to be ecumenical about it.   Lily, younger by a year, always struggled harder than her older sister but I was much larger than either of them and would inevitably end on top, all of us smiling and red with exertion.   Eva would tell me how strong she thought I was.  Lily remained silent.
Sometimes, the two sisters and I slid down the rough slopes of Rosedale Ravine just behind their backyard on Bloor Street.  Sore from the ride down the hill, we followed the dirt road around to Riverdale Zoo.  This was exactly like the jungle with its hazy humid air hanging without breeze in a heavily wooded valley.   We scared rabbits, squirrels and garter snakes, all making scurrying noises in the bushes.  We met strange old men who lived under the bridges, gangs of boys carrying sticks, whom we had to evade in the lush undergrowth.  Worst of all, we passed through an old grave yard with aging headstones and a heavy sun drenched misty light, thick with moisture.  This was where we surprised a bat from its hiding place and ran for cover when it flew at our heads.  The girls hid behind me.

At the end of our hour long hike, we got to spend time at the zoo, looking at decrepit lions, dirty mountain goats and chimpanzees who seemed to pass their days shrieking and playing chase or sitting in the corner chewing their toes and rubbing themselves in ways I did not understand at the time. 

On this day, one chimp in particular was playing up to the crowd and would swing and make faces for peanuts.  A large crowd was gathered and Mothers were telling their children to “look at the funny monkeys”.   Gales of laughter erupted when someone tossed the chimp a candy apple and a paper candy floss cone.  She made short work of the apple and stuck the cone on her head.   She licked it and stuck it in her nose.  More laughter.  She stuck in her ear amid even more hilarity.  Then she bent over as people were still laughing and stuck the cone ‘where the sun don’t shine.”

Sudden shocked silence.  Mothers hustled their children away and we were left with an abruptly silent chimp cage and a chimp sitting in a corner, a discarded cone still near the bars.  I had turned red and averted my eyes.  Eva and Lily were still laughing minutes later and asked me “Did you see that?”  When I did not answer, they asked again, “Come on, wasn’ that funny?”  A mumbled “Ya” from me was enough for them to change the subject.   But they knew they had something on me.

We took the long trek home, arriving with so much dirt covering us that Eva and Lily’s mother thought we had a tan.

Their mother was an artist.  She would occasionally lounge around the house in a bathrobe, which, much to my chagrin, she did not always do up.  She always laughed at my embarrassment.

A few years earlier, I had been curious enough to watch my mother as she undressed.  My brother and I slept in a bed in the living room and our parents’ bedroom adjoined it, but there was no door between the two rooms.   As I watched, my mother slid the sweater over her head and undid her brassiere.  Here my attention grew more intense and I made a noise on the metal headboard, peeking through the bars.  My mother looked up and saw me peering at her.

She was furious and believed in physical discipline.   I do not remember exactly what she did, but I certainly remembered never again to look at a woman when she undressed. 

From that day forward I was very uncomfortable about seeing anything untoward.   The sensation I had had when I had looked at the chimp was an echo of that high anxiety and fear I felt whenever threatened with female nakedness.

Eva and Lily noticed my discomfort and whispered together and giggled.  I started to feel a sense of dread as we entered their room.  Their younger girl cousin was also there as she had come over to play.  Like them, she was lithe, with blonde hair and blue eyes. 

We chatted about our adventures and how we had fooled the gang from the other side of the ravine. We debated whether the bat was really Dracula or not.  This was all good.  But as we came closer and closer to the incident with the chimp, I could feel myself breaking into a cold and clammy sweat.

Eva whispered a word or two to her sister and Lily insisted in knowing my reaction to the chimp.  “Could you tell it was a girl?” Her broad face with coarse features seemed to suddenly loom up at me.

A silent pause from me and then a quiet, “I didn’t look.”  They all laughed.  “You’re kidding.”  Then suddenly and slyly, “You know what a girl looks like down there don’t you?”

I squirmed in my seat and Lily pushed forward.  Her lips were pulled back and I could not tell if she was smiling or snarling.  “Are you telling me you don’t know the difference between boys and girls?”  Her red face was awfully close and I stood up.  I could see Eva standing a little off to the side, her fine features and broad forehead fixed in a charming, cool, serene smile.  The young cousin was starting to laugh.

“We’re all the same,” I said, “that’s what my mom told me.”  This elicited gales of laughter all around.

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard, “Lily said .   “Here, look.”  She stood up and pulled down her pants and panties.  “See, we’re different.”

I felt a dense fog fall over my eyes.  I could not see clearly.  I was gasping for breath as if in deep water and stumbled back against the wall.  Lily pursued me relentlessly.  “Look,” she said, coming toward me with her pants and panties around her ankles.  I was seized with the great fear that I would be struck dead and turned to face the wall, covering my eyes.  I would have done the same thing if I were a vampire turning from the cross, held in the outstretched hands of the priest.

Lily and her cousin were now on either side of me.   Both of them had their pants and panties down around their ankles.  “Look at us, look at us, look at us.”

They danced around me in a frenzy, while I buried my face in my hands, although for some reason, I confess, I did peek between my fingers, but really, it was only for an instant.  My knees were buckling and my heart was racing.  

In my deformed imagination, and not knowing what I was looking at, I thought I saw a thin member hanging from between their legs, but without testicles.  “OK, OK, you’re different.  OK.”  I blurted out.

Eva, the eldest, came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder.  “It’s all right,” she said, “it’s all right.  You don’t have to look. “ 

The other two girls pulled up their pants, still giggling.  Eva walked me to the door.  “Still friends?” she asked and put out her hand, that cool serene smile still playing on her lips.  Her arm was sinuous as a snake, as solid as a lifeline to a drowning man. 

My head still whirling I reached out and shook her hand in gratitude and uncertainty.  From a distance I heard myself ask, “What do girls want?”  

“The same as anybody,” she smiled, and closed the door.