Can I Sit with You?


Ella Enchanted

Suzanne LaFetra

Age 12 at the time

Jorge strummed his blonde wood guitar in the hotel patio. He swaggered right up to the table where I sat crunching a taquito de pollo drizzled with cream, flanked by my parents. I leaned toward him, his tight silver-spangled pants and mustard-colored mariachi suit bright in the Mexican sun. He looked me straight in the face, and launched into a song that seemed to be breaking his heart. Yo soy un hombre sincero…

I was twelve, and enchanted. It was Holy Week in Puerta Vallarta. California was still groggy from winter, but Mexico was wide awake, fragrant and rioting in color. Scarlet and magenta bougainvillea comingled, dripping over gleaming black balconies of twisted iron. Thick white-washed walls hid interior courtyards, filled with cooing birds and cooling palms.

I watched bright parachutes soar over the Pacific. I ate clams for the first time and crunchy curls of fried cheese dipped in smoky salsa. I devoured Gone With The Wind, perched poolside in a black bikini, legs slick with baby oil.

Back home, the foxiest boy in the 6th grade was Tim Morelli. If I did the right thing, acted the right way, maybe he would invite me to his fort, clasp his St. Christopher medal around my throat, ask me to go steady. A couple of weeks before our trip, Tim invited me to meet him after school at the bluffs, a hideout under the eucalyptus trees. I pushed my bike up the craggy, crusty hill and waited in the shade under tangy leaves, my heart thumping. When he arrived, Tim jammed his grimy hand into my underpants and wormed it around. I squeezed my eyes shut, lips pressed together. The going steady would come next. A ring, maybe. I waited. Footsteps crunched through the leaves and he pulled out his hand. His two friends, Wally and Dave elbowed each other, and Tim grinned.

I pedaled my lime green Schwinn home as fast as I could, thighs on fire, tears streaming into my ears. No medal, no gentle kiss. After that, Wally and Dave regularly ambushed me in the janitor’s closet. They wrestled me to the ground, then groped and grabbed at me. “Gusto,” they shrieked, mimicking a popular beer ad, and twisted the tender tips of my breasts. “Go for the gusto!” Each time, my nipples were purple for days.

But in Mexico, there were wide grins, low bows, a door swept open. And what does the señorita desire this evening? While Jorge strummed, I sipped my virgin strawberry daiquiri and imagined his mouth clamped over mine, what it might feel like to have that black mustache prickle my lips.

I was safe, high on my vacationer pedestal, a moat of chlorinated water, Hawaiian Tropic Cocoa Butter and my mother’s close eye keeping me from harm.

At home, though, the border between child and woman was dangerous. On weekends at my dad’s house, my older step-brother regularly terrorized me in the middle of the night, fondling my breasts with his dry hands, jacking off in the dark while I scrunched into a ball. Another guy started out as a babysitter, and we jumped Parcheesi pieces around a board, but after dark, the game changed; a slobbery kiss, a teenage hand cold on my belly, reaching, pushing.

“Don’t tell,” they all said, and I was ashamed, so I kept quiet. I figured I deserved it; that’s what happens to girls with breasts already as big as their mother’s, who dream of kissing mustached mouths, who are desperate to wear Tim Morelli’s cheap ring.

The lipglossy clear-eyed girls in magazines, the Susan Deys and Marsha Bradys swung their hair and grinned. They didn’t look scared. They wore gleaming white swim suits, slim bodies just right; no scraggly wiry hairs sprouting, no purple stretch marks, no Oxy 10 in their medicine cabinets, no worn copies of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret under their pillows. They were cool, possessed, sure, un-slouching, un-needing. Unlike me.

A couple of months before our trip to Mexico, I discovered a saddle-colored stain in my underwear. I was the first girl in the class to get my period, but I had seen the film strips, I knew that it was just men-stroo-ay-shun. I snuck into my mom’s bathroom and pushed in a tampon. It felt foreign inside me, uncomfortable; I didn’t feel like horseback riding or swimming, like the smiling Kathy Rigby had promised in the TV ads.

That afternoon, I hid in my room, record player blaring, furious at my body’s betrayal. I knew what was lurking across the border; more bruised nipples and slimy tongues, more grabbing and jerking.

My mom came in, asked how my day was, and the tears dripped off my jawline.

“Oh, honey, whatever it is, we can fix it,” she kept saying, stroking my hair.

“You can’t,” I cried, hanging my head. “Nobody can.”

After a few minutes, she spied my balled-up underpants in the corner and understood. She straightened me up, looked into my face, gently. “You’re becoming a woman.”

On our last day in Mexico, Jorge again came to our table. He sang a lovely lilting song, closing his eyes, chin tilted skyward during the best parts. “In your mouth, you will carry the flavor of me…” Then he took off his hat, and asked my parents’ permission to leave a small gift. “So that you have warm memories of my country,” he said in perfect English. It was a cheap, too-big necklace, a slab of marbled stone hanging from a cord. I was awed. It was the same mustard color of his mariachi uniform.

A tiny ballerina danced every time I cracked my jewelry box open to look at Jorge’s gift. I fingered the cool stone cradled in red velvet. But I never wore the necklace, didn’t want to feel the weight of it around my neck, the press of stone between my breasts. I just liked knowing it was there, waiting for me.

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From the Bleachers

by Els Kushner
Age 13 at the time

In 7th grade, I got a crush on my French teacher. A huge, yearning, painful crush. On my female French teacher. It hit me like a truck, and it was terrifying. Particularly so because I read a lot and knew exactly what it was called if these sorts of feelings for people of the same gender continued; I had it on good authority that they could be Just a Phase, and I hoped fervently that they were.

See, all those advice books for adolescents — the ones with questions supposedly from Real Teens about things like menstruation and pubic hair — always included a question from some poor soul along the lines of “I think I have a crush on my best friend, s/he’s a girl/boy and so am I, does this mean I’m gay?” To which the answer was always something like, “Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. But don’t worry [emphases mine] about your crush on your friend; it’s perfectly normal for heterosexual teens to have feelings like this…” and blah blah blah. It was supposed to be reassuring but was actually confusing: if there was nothing wrong with being gay, what was there to worry about, with the crushes on friends? Why the need for reassurance? Anyone would smell a rat.

In 8th grade, I tried to put the whole emotional mess behind me and concerned myself with the standard teenage-girl nerd things: reading the Foundation trilogy, writing in my Notebook, and trying not to get beat up by mean kids.

The mean kids were really, really mean. Especially Noelle Johnson, who was constantly threatening to beat me up because I was so bad at volleyball. Noelle was one of those girls who were mysteriously allowed to spend every gym class sitting on the bleachers, gossiping and making obnoxious comments. (And you have to wonder: why did she care about me? I wasn’t even on her team!)

One day Noelle ventured down from the bleachers again. I figured she was going to give me yet another hard time about how my inability to spike the ball was going to lead to my imminent demise at her hands. Instead, she stared at me, hard, and demanded accusingly, “Are you a lesbian?”

My jaw dropped. My first impulse — honestly, I was this nerdy — was to say something like, “How am I supposed to know if I’m a lesbian? I’m only thirteen! No one can know if they’re a lesbian when they’re thirteen! All the books say so! I’m waiting to see. Ask me again in a few years.” But even I knew that that would’ve been a Big Mistake. Though, in retrospect, maybe not worse than what I did say, which was (after a few seconds during which all the above thoughts flashed through my mind) a bare and unconvincing “No!”

As it was, she stared at me for a couple more seconds, while all her friends went “ooooooh!” with that rising inflection indicating a fight’s about to start. But nothing happened. She made a few more remarks about how dumb I was and went back to the bleachers.

I went back to the volleyball game, shaken. How had she known to ask? How??

Now I think that she probably just randomly picked the most damning accusation she could come up with. But at the time it was so scary and creepy, like she could see inside my thoughts. If she could do that when I wasn’t even sure how I felt, what would happen if I decided that I really was gay? It was too terrible to contemplate, so I put it all firmly out of my mind.

Or rather, I did the best I could. A year or two later, in unrequited love with my best friend and trying to decide what “counted” as being in love, I remember writing something like this in my notebook:

“Am I gay? I know I’m in love with Z. But does that mean I’m a lesbian? I’m really too young to decide something like that! When I’m maybe 20, if I still feel like this about girls, then I’ll decide I really am. But I can’t know now.”

And that’s more or less what I did: I waited until college, when nobody I knew was threatening to beat anyone up, and it didn’t matter how good anyone was at volleyball, and I didn’t feel like my whole world would come tumbling down with one simple “yes.”

In the decades since then, most people in my life — my friends and family and even the people I work with — have been just fine with who I am and who I love. Even my daughter says that no one at school gives her a hard time about having two moms. I know it’s not like that for everyone, and I feel really lucky.

At times I wish I’d had the courage to come out sooner, at least to myself. Sometimes, now, I wish that when Noelle Johnson asked me that question, I’d said “Yes!,” swept her into my arms, and given her a big smooch in front of the whole gym class. It would have made for a much better story, even though I probably would’ve gotten suspended and beaten up.

And at other times I think I was right and smart to wait until it felt safe for me. Life isn’t just a story when you’re living it, after all. It’s easy for me now, safe in my grownup life, to wonder whether it’s worse to get hurt, or worse to live scared that you might get hurt. Some kids who come out as teenagers did and do get hurt, in real and lasting ways, and I escaped most of that.

But you know what’s weird? No one ever did actually beat me up, even though they spent much of 8th grade threatening to. I didn’t even exactly know what “beaten up” meant, even though I spent most of 8th grade being afraid of it.

I do wish I’d been able, somehow, to not be so scared of something that hadn’t even happened to me. And to let myself decide for myself what I felt, and what it meant, and what counted as real.



All’s Fair In Love and Mucus
October 31, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: crush, junior high school, math, middle school, mucus

by SJ Alexander
Age 12 at the time

I grew up in a small town outside of Chicago where the summers were so hot it felt like your skin was about to melt off and you would be happy because you suspected you would be cooler that way, and the winters were so cold your freshly-washed hair would freeze solid at the bus stop.

This was the end of the eighties, during the last gasp of the big poodle hair craze. In the eighth grade I had my crazy tangle out front teased up until it could ensnare low-flying bats. I was so proud of it! This, combined with my tendency to carelessly leave the house with the back of my hair still wet, and my fetching gigantic hoop earrings that could double as a belt in a pinch, meant I wasn’t one to wear a wooly hat. So, I was sick all the time, all winter long, and I tend to think that there was a relationship between my constant sickness and my habits.

Despite being smart overall (other than the hat thing), I was in the Math Facts for Complete Morons that year, which felt like torture to me. There was not a bone in my body or a dusty, forgotten corner of my brain that could make me retain math, I’m sorry to say. Even in college when I was required to take algebra and I did every extra assignment, studied hard, and stayed after to get help from the teacher, I barely squeaked by with a B. Now I’m pretty good with “practical” math, such as grocery store deals and restaurant tipping, but I was hopeless in those days. So there I was for the 4,000th time, studying basic math facts again.

Fact: I was deeply, deeply bored.

Fortunately, I had something else to focus on: I was completely in love with the boy who was across the room from me. I could stare at him for the whole hour, because our desks were broken up into two groups of rows that faced each other, with a big aisle down the middle. I was almost right across from him, but one row over, so lucky for me no one was blocking the view of his utter handsomeness.

Rather than fussing with fractions, I studied this boy. I noticed how many times in a week he wore his favorite sweater (orange with a snowflake pattern) and if he had gotten is hair cut (bowl cut to shorter bowl cut). Once he was out sick for three days, leaving me alone to twist and fidget in my seat as if I was being burned at the math stake.

Yearly, usually in January, the whole school would be hit by that coughy-phlegmy plague that lingers for weeks. I had an unsympathetic mother who would pretty much only let me stay home if there was good, solid evidence I was currently bleeding from a major artery or nonstop rocket-style vomiting. So there I was in my math class, at that stage of the cold where you feel like you need to sneeze constantly.

Fact: Middle school girls often find normal bodily functions embarrassing.

The whole class sat quietly, working on some math problems that were assigned in-class. I had the most tortuous tickle — it was as if the entire contents of my head were trying to escape. If only I was at home and could sneeze and blow until I felt better. But no. If I did that in class that would mean my classmates would know I was human, and did disgusting things like sneeze. If I couldn’t even sneeze, then noseblowing was ABSOLUTELY out of the question.

I kept holding my sneezes in, making pathetic little “Eep! Eep!” noises as I held them back, feeling more and more as if my head would pop. I would not be caught dead carrying something as practical and grandma-like as tissues, so even as I began to wish I had some, I continued suffering in squeaky near-silence. Some people, bored to death of their basic math facts, leaned over to whisper, “Bless you.” My math teacher had even thoughtfully provided a box of tissues on the corner of his desk for student use, but there was no way I was going to parade across the room in front of the boy I liked and fire up the schnozz trumpet.

Desperately, I began to consider my options. Could I make it up to the front and whisper for permission to go to the bathroom? I didn’t think so. My eyes were so watery that the math problems on the paper in front of me were beginning to blur and swim. I was going to … OH NO.

Fact: I was totally hosed.

“WHAA-CHOOOOO!” I lost it, breaking the heavy mathy silence that blanketed the classroom. I clapped my hand, covered with the too-long sleeve of my sweatshirt, over my upper lip, mouth, and chin which were all now densely covered with a shiny snot goatee.

I froze where I was, and glanced around furtively. A couple more “Bless yous” were tossed my way. No one seemed to be paying attention. Even the teacher was busy marking our pop quizzes from that morning. With trepidation, I looked across the room. There was the object of my secret love, brows knitted, working away at his math problem. Whew. Sleeve still in place, I hunched down over my work and tried to figure out what to do next as my face burned. At least I could see my paper again.

I scraped off a little bit of the snot goatee at a time. To this day, I think it was probably the most fluid that has come out of my head, ever. I thought, could I hide under my hands and ask for permission to go to the bathroom now? No. Even more embarrassing now that my face had exploded. I kept working away at it a little bit at a time. To my horror and deepening panic, the part of the sleeve I was working on became totally saturated and I had to roll the snot up inside my sleeve. I turned to the other sleeve, lamenting the fact that it was my favorite sweatshirt (I thought it was hilarious: “I think, therefore, I party,” plus it was big, warm, and comfortable). Would this ruin it? I still kept glancing up at the boy I was crushed out on across the way, who, as usual, did not notice I existed.

Finally, my face was dry again and my sleeves were rolled up almost all the way to my elbows. I was saved! I didn’t think there was anything left on my face, but I touched it repeatedly to make sure. I congratulated myself on my cleverness.

Then, setting his pencil down, my crush nonchalantly slid his chair back and stood up from his desk. He strolled across the room and took a tissue out of the box on the teacher’s desk and quietly blew his nose with his back to the class.

Oh, DISGUSTING. How could he get up and blow his nose in front of the whole room like that? It was at that moment that I noticed he had kind of a funny-shaped head and … was that a boil next to his nose? I, the girl with her own snot ensconced inside not one but both sleeves, discovered that I did not love this boy as much as I thought. Love is fickle that way, I guess.



Lose and Win
October 17, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: crush, junior high school, marching band

by Jackie Davis-Martin
Age 13 at the time

The last parade of the summer carried me on highs and lows like those of the giant Ferris wheel dominating Kennywood Park, the magical scene of our annual marching band competition. It was 1955 and I was thirteen years old, equally preoccupied with garnering another victory for our junior high band, and trying to get a boy I really liked to pay attention to me.

As we scrambled off the buses the evening of the competition, the roller coasters undulated seductively around the parking lot where we were assigned to line up. I tried to concentrate on the parade route that Mr. Girotta, our director, was explaining to me, while keeping track of the boy I liked, Beanie. I was hoping to go on the rides with him afterward, my heart pounding already at the possibility of being buckled in next to him, of our being thrust with force against each other rounding the roller coaster curves, our arms shooting skyward in simultaneous joy.

Mr. Girotta followed my gaze and smiled. “Yeah, that’s what I want to talk to you about. Beanie’s on bass drum tonight.”

Our regular drummer was sick, he told me, frowning. Mr. Girotta had been teaching and drilling us kids since fourth grade and took us everywhere to compete. I was the drum major (or “-ette” as we added back then), sort of his right-hand girl, a position of both honor and isolation. As “major of the drum,” my job was to cue in the bass drum at times of playing opportunities, for instance while passing a judges’ stand. I got to wear a skirted costume with gold braid, a furry hat and tasseled boots, and carry a big fancy baton. I would hold that baton high and blow my whistle. Then, the drums’ rat-a-tatting would shift to the bass drum’s BOOM-boom! BOOM-boom! BOOOOM, BOOM-boom! The band would play! I knew that the worst thing that could happen to a school band was to march in muted cadence past the judges’ stand, instruments smartly and uselessly tucked under armpits.

Mr. Girotta stressed that the problem was to bring the band around the wide arc of the merry-go-round just before the judges’ stand. He left to collect our free tickets, and I crossed the dusty lot to Beanie who, although he made my heart flutter, was a wild card in the reliability department.

Beanie was tall and skinny and didn’t take much seriously. He had just moved here at the end of seventh grade, and everyone liked him. His spaghetti-like arms would wave above the snares or the triangles, or even, occasionally, on the cymbals. At our spring concert, before the curtain went up, he actually dropped a cymbal, sending of us into muffled paroxysms of laughter. When the cymbal had circled upon itself in resounding layers of clamor, Beanie scrunched up his eyes in a wincing apology.

“Hi, Miss Boss Lady,” he greeted me. I cringed; I wanted then to be a cute third clarinetist, in pants, with no concerns. “Mr. G. told me about the stand and all. I know what to do.”

“Oh! Good!” It was all I could gasp. Then, ever Mr. Girotta’s emissary, I couldn’t resist, “Beanie, your top button isn’t buttoned. Your jacket.”

He gaped at me. “My what? My button? Oh, well, pardon me!” He buttoned it up with elaborate gestures, his skinny elbows jutting wide. “Aha!” (He took a step back.) “What do I see here?” (He glanced at my white boots.) “Dust! Your boots have dust on them, Miss Perfect.”

I almost started to cry. “I’m not that at all,” I said. Did all this mean he liked me, or he didn’t? “You’ll watch me, won’t you? You know the signal?” I waved my clunky wand in the air, demonstrating.

He leaned forward, close enough to kiss. “I won’t take my eyes off you!” he said, smiling, then straightened to buckle on his drum.

I sort of auditioned Beanie early on. Our band was arranged in seven rows of seven, the percussion in the fourth row, bass drum in the middle. The first time I signaled, he boomed the roll-off, the band played its rousing Thunderer march. I felt on top of the world. I signaled near Kiddieland, then the Ferris wheel, and twice more. We were a team, Beanie and I! I strutted confidently toward the merry-go-round, pumping the baton.

But suddenly, the cadence grew fainter, and then got lost in the calliope music. I blew the whistle hard, and flourished the baton. Nothing happened. I did it again. Again, nothing. I turned around to realize with the worst of sensations that I had lost most of the band! Still with me were two rows of clarinets and flutes, looking over their shoulders nervously, and then there was a separation — a big space — that stretched around the merry-go-round into some unknown hell I didn’t want to think about. The piccolo pointed beyond me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see that I was also losing our connection to the rest of the parade.

I pranced through the space to the lost rows blowing my whistle hysterically. Nothing! I stopped and screamed “Roll Off! Take the Roll Off!” This was so far beyond protocol that even now I cringe at what I did.

BOOM-boom! BOOM-boom! BO-O-O-O-M, BOOM-boom! Finally. I ran in high phony marches back to where I was supposed to be, to the strains of The Thunderer, but it was too late. I was now in front of the judges who had watched our — my — humiliating show.

Afterward I sought the edge of the bus lot and crouched on a log until Mr. Girotta came and got me.

“I’m sorry!” I sobbed. He nodded and patted me on the shoulder. “Look, there’s someone here,” he said, producing Beanie from the shadows.

“I couldn’t see you!” Beanie said, in anguish. “I told Mr. G. I couldn’t. I didn’t hear the whistle, either. Those flanks took so long to go around — I had to wait for them, didn’t I? I just couldn’t leave those rows behind, could I? Then, I didn’t know where you went, until you came running through!”

“Don’t!” I put my face in my hands.

“You didn’t even ride,” Beanie said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“We lost.” I said, crying.

“Yeah,” he said, “ I know we did. I guess we did it together.” He lifted my hat from my lap. ”Anyway, I was wondering. I mean after all this, would you — would you sit with me on the bus ride home?”

I turned to him in wonder. What did a trophy matter? Beanie liked me! I took his hand, and let him lead me back to the bus.