Can I Sit with You?

Karen Morley

I hated Karen Morley in year 8. She had naturally blonde hair so light it was nearly white. Her no-makeup skin revealed the colourless spots beneath to the world. When she laughed her small teeth were yellow against the red of her too-large gums; and she laughed a lot. Her clothes were boring and old fashioned, as if her gran had chosen them. She had no friends. Despite all of that, the boys seemed to love her. They flocked around her like seagulls around fish! And she had a boyfriend called Colin.

But she was so boring! She never said anything. She just laughed. She laughed at their jokes, she laughed when they teased her, she even laughed they asked her questions instead of giving an answer. But still they flocked.

Tania and I often stood frowning, arms folded, watching in disbelief. Now Tania and I – we were interesting, clever and funny. We could joke back, tease them with attitude and hold our own in any debate. We knew about football, politics, psychology and Marc Bolan. We also spent a lot of time on our clothes, hair and makeup. So why were they hanging around with her? She couldn’t even crack a joke and she had yellow teeth for goodness sake!

I can’t recall much about what we did to Karen Morley that year. I do remember Colin kicking Tania really hard in the playground for calling Karen names. I don’t remember the names that we called her but I expect being boring and yellow teeth were mentioned. We were outraged at his reaction. We had just wanted the boys to see what we saw. They were supposed to turn against her, not us.

Three years later Karen Morley and I sat together in the Form room only a couple of months away from leaving school. All animosities had long ceased. We chatted and laughed about teenage girly stuff. Then suddenly she told me that Tania and I had made her life Hell in year 8. She said we had sent her a card on her birthday and when she’d opened it “We all hate you” was written inside. I was devastated. I saw all the pain of that year in her face.

Karen Morley was a nice, pretty, not particularly clever person. She had never done anything to hurt me, but I had really hurt her. I remember that I said I was sorry and did not know what else to say. I wish now that I’d told her what pretty hair she had, how attractive her laugh was, and how destructive and powerful jealousy can be.


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.

Calling for Friends

Kari Dahlen
Age 12 at the time

The summer before the seventh grade, I received an unexpected phone call.

“Kari! It is Trisha! You remember me, right?”

The voice was friendly but the name was not familiar. I probably uttered a noncommittal, “Um… hi!”

“You mean you don’t remember me?” she asked, her voice a bit sharper. She didn’t wait for an answer, “We were, like, best friends in the third grade.” Her voice sweetened, “You remember… right?”

I refused to say “yes.” My best friend in the second grade had taught me not to lie. And in the third grade she told me music was of the Devil and as third-graders we had to be “mature.” Of course, we also had the Crazy Club in the third grade, and that wasn’t particularly “mature,” nor was being crazy particularly God-approved. I didn’t remember a “Trisha” in that mix.

I couldn’t say “yes,” but I also didn’t want to admit not remembering her if she could be a potential friend.

That best friend from the second grade moved on to a Christian junior high while I went through several public junior high rites-of-passage such as having a seagull take a shit on my head during lunch, being accused of stuffing my bra, and having my locker broken into: the shelves my dad had built for me were doused with graffiti and the cheerful pink striped wrapping paper I used as wallpaper now had, “Kari is a Pig-Nose” written between the lines.

(The Pig-Nose thing was pretty unoriginal, but that didn’t stop me from crying when a group of teenagers with their noses taped up high entered the frozen yogurt place where I worked a few years later. They specifically asked for me to serve their yogurt.)

In the sixth grade I ate lunch with a Chinese woman who wore her old school uniform, a shy Polish immigrant, a girl whose mullet stuck up in the front revealing heavy forehead acne, and a fickle, spacey seventh-grader who repeated the seventh grade. Eventually, Mullet Girl decided she was too cool for me, so I stuck with the folks who didn’t speak English.

If “Trisha” was real, maybe I would have a shot at a friend who was cooler than those others.

“Um, well, we must have been in different classes,” I finally said to the voice on the phone.

“Nope!” Again, the voice was super-cheery and expectant. “Look… I am moving back into the area, and I wanted to see if you would show me around.”

“Um, sure!” Finally I could answer in the affirmative. I could be bouncy, helpful, and friendly.

“Why don’t you meet me on the steps on the first day of school!”

“Sure, absolutely!”

“You better remember me by then,” she cautioned, and then laughed, “Bye!” Was that a giggle and snort I heard in the background?

I was skeptical and worried. If “Trisha” was pretty, she’d be snapped up by the “popular kids.” And if she wasn’t… well, then she’d be yet another person that I ate with because nobody else would.

The first day of seventh grade, I waited on the steps close to the location where eight months later I would overhear the football team telling their coach that if I made cheerleader they would all quit the team. I had made finals; they were panicking. I didn’t make cheerleader.

I waited for Trisha.

And waited.

Perhaps there were giggles. Perhaps there were people hiding alongside a building, peeking out. But I didn’t notice them.

After the second bell, I ran to class. Of course I was late, but I hadn’t wanted to miss a potential friend. I didn’t want her to think I had stood her up.

That evening, she called, “Um, sorry. I couldn’t make it this morning.”

I promised to wait for her again the next morning.

Of course, nobody came.

The call that evening was, “Where were you? I waited for you!”

I knew she hadn’t arrived, had she?

I half-apologized, half-accused, “Well, sorry if you are real, but if you aren’t, stop bugging me.” I hung up without waiting for her response.

Fed up with public school life, I ended up at a private high school. But “Trisha” hadn’t forgotten me the way I had apparently forgotten her. That familiar voice phoned me shortly after my sixteenth birthday to inform me of a new dating service in the area. She didn’t identify herself as “Trisha,” but I am pretty sure it was the same person.

“No thanks, I have a boyfriend,” I shrugged.

The shock in her voice was noticeable, “Well keep us in mind for when he dumps you!” I heard plenty of snickers in the background.

Two years later, the phone rang. “We are from the premier dance academy in the country. We saw your most recent performance and are interested in having you apply to our school. To where should we send the admissions materials?”

This was a joke, right? Still, I couldn’t be sure, and I wanted to be polite, even if I had no intention of attending their school. I gave the voice my postal address.

A few minutes later, the phone rang again, “Oh, so sorry…” and then I heard a huge guffaw. The voice composed herself and shushed the peanut gallery, “It turns out that you are not the dancer we are interested in. There are many better than you. Best of luck with your college applications.”

“Actually, I’ve already been admitted to Brown University. But thanks for your well-wishes,” I responded. I knew their call was a joke, but my statement wasn’t a lie.

They called during the holiday break after my first semester of college to taunt me again with the fictional dating service. Fortunately, I was able to respond that their services were not necessary.

The next holiday break, the only calls were from my boyfriend.

I met a real “Trisha” years later. She is a gorgeous, thin, multi-talented woman. But she is also someone with a heart.

Mullet Girl is now quite beautiful and holds degrees in law and genetics. We are long-distance friends via holiday cards with occasional phone calls where I know the voice comes from a real person.

Christian Girl returned to the fold of our Crazy Club and we are now Crazy Mothers together.

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.

Spitting Image
November 1, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, middle school, name-calling, orchestra, race, school bus

by John H. Kim
Age 10 at the time

Fifth grade was a low point in my life. I had finally made some friends in third grade, and gotten through fourth. Then we moved to the other side of the mountain, to a huge, run-down old house overlooking the Hudson River. My parents had bought it as a fixer-upper, and I think got a real deal. It had a four-and-a-half acre mostly wooded lot, with a garage that used to be an old stable. There were no other houses for quite a distance, which made it kind of lonely.

We lived off highway 9W instead of a regular street, so the school bus didn’t stop near our house. I walked to school instead, which was only a quarter-mile if I cut through our enormous mountain lot to the dead end of Franklin Street. This involved trekking through a wide grassy path through the woods, past an old swimming pool. The walk was bearable some days, but when I had orchestra practice and had to lug my French horn, it was a real pain.

I had a hard time adjusting to the new school. I missed my friends Mark and Jason, and would call them on the phone a lot. At some point into the school year I finally invited someone from orchestra over to our house. I can’t remember his name anymore. I remember he played a woodwind of some sort, certainly something a lot lighter to lug to my house than a French horn.

When he came over, my mother was home. She brought us some snacks, then we looked through my stuff and around the house. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, and didn’t play games like I did with my old friends. Then we went outside to the big yard. The garden was still probably a mess, but it was big. Suddenly, he got mad over something, and yelled, “The problem with you is that you think you’re the spitting image of your mother!” Then he stalked off.

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

I couldn’t recall exactly what we had been talking over, but it didn’t seem to involve my mother. I cast my mind in all directions, trying to think what it could mean. Was it some sort of clever dig at my looks? I hated clever insults, or rather I hated being embarrassed for not understanding them. Was it a play on words, something about “spitting”? Insults often seem to invoke mothers.

Then something occurred to me. My mother was white, and my father was Korean. Did that have something to do with it? I still didn’t understand why he said that, but it did seem to make a sort of sense. In fact, I realized he was right. I didn’t think of myself as Korean at all. I didn’t interact with my father much, so most of my mannerisms came from my mother.

Still, it was a puzzle. My visitor was white, but I think he was from an immigrant family of some sort, maybe Eastern European. What would make him say that? I couldn’t remember what would prompt that, but then, I didn’t remember much about what we talked about anyway. As far as I can remember, we didn’t talk or hang out after that for the rest of the year. I certainly never asked him what he meant by it, or what made him say it.

It did make me think about a lot of things. I still remembered some of the popular chants from elementary school. One was “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white!” Another was “Chinese; Japanese; Dirty knees; Look at these!” — done pushing up and down your eyebrows, then pulling out your shirt like breasts. I didn’t understand what was behind those rhymes as I thought about what he had said, but I somehow knew they were related.

I made it through the rest of the year at that middle school, but I never made any friends. The next year, my parents put me in a private prep school across the river. It was a long bus ride, but the bus would stop at our house. Some things changed, but others didn’t. I still didn’t think of myself as Korean for the most part, but sometimes I would stop and think about the incident, and my image.

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.

The Sound of Musicals

By Michael Procopio
Age 6 to the present

The men in my family loved show tunes. My grandfather, being of Italian stock, listened to opera. My father preferred Broadway musicals. Original cast albums like Cinderella, Camelot, A Chorus Line, and Annie followed us wherever we traveled in his car. My older brother loved big movie musicals, specifically those produced by Arthur Freed and his friends at Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Most directly influenced by him, I learned to converse in a language liberally peppered with musical references. We compared the events of our own lives to those which occurred in the movies, usually unfavorably, since it is often difficult to make homework and cleaning up after dogs more interesting than dancing around pirate ships or singing with Munchkins.

In my family, a boy singing songs from The Sound of Music was nothing extraordinary– in fact, it was encouraged. The subtle changing of lyrics to suit any occasion was applauded by my elder brother. Sadly, singing “I Am Six, Going on Seven” in a voice approximating that of the eldest Von Trapp girl did not translate well to the playground of my elementary school. Worse, my impression of Ann-Margret’s frenzied “Smash the Mirror” number from Tommy was not received with applause but with baffled silence, then derisive laughter, which I found confusing since my brother and sister had both loved the impression as I performed it the day before. Upon review some thirty years later, it seems reasonable that a six-year-old boy writhing on the on the grass and pulling at his hair while singing in an exaggerated vibrato might make other little boys uncomfortable. It was clear to them that I was different. It was clear to me that they simply did not speak my language.

By the second grade, my performances were much more subtle; intended for more intimate audiences. To offset the boredom of a long bus ride to Olvera Street in Los Angeles, I decided to entertain my field trip seat mate with what I thought was a subdued interpretation of Esther Williams’ playful version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The boy sitting next to me had always been kind and therefore, I thought, deserving of my talents. Far from being entertained, he squirmed and moved as far away as he could from me without physically hurling himself from the bus. I thought he’d get it. I thought he’d understand. In a way, I think he did. I don’t think he spoke to me again until the third grade. I rode the rest of the way to Los Angeles in silence; my status as a resident alien confirmed.

There were few opportunities to further humiliate myself since I did not sit with other boys at lunch or get invited to their houses after school or even play with them unless compelled to in group sports like dodgeball wherein they sharpened their throwing skills and I perfected my dodging abilities.

If a boy admits to liking show tunes, he invites trouble. If a boy who likes show tunes also admits to dreaming about taking bubble baths with Michael Landon, he invites danger. To my mind, liking musicals seemed a perfectly normal, masculine thing. Blowing kisses to the shadow I saw in the shape of Mr. Landon cast by my night light every evening did not. I’d never heard of another boy doing that, so I kept my mouth shut, which felt unnecessary, since everyone seemed to know anyway.

Names like “girl” and “sissy” were first muttered and then shouted at me. As we got a little older, the words “fag” and “homo” entered the vocabulary. I objected to “girl” since I had no desire to be one, Ann-Margret impression aside. “Sissy” I wasn’t so sure about– I was bigger and faster than most of my taunters, but I was mildly obsessed with people like Charo and activities such as watching Days of Our Lives. By the time fifth grade came and the abandoned fantasies of Michael Landon were replaced by thoughts of holding hands with a tall Brazilian-Swedish boy, I knew my taunters were speaking the truth when they called me a homo; I don’t think they meant as a compliment.

The name-calling eventually lead to physical threats. The occasional sock in the arm or leg stuck out to trip graduated to stomach-punching and being shoved against walls. Once cornered in the library by one of the meanest boys I knew, I pleaded with him to leave me alone and warned him of the nearby presence of our school librarian. He laughed and suggested I cry to her as he punched me in the stomach. I weighed my options and decided the best course of action
was to bury my fist in his eye. I was surprised by how much my hand hurt. That never seemed to happen to people in the movies. The following year, the boy was placed in a classroom for children with learning disabilities. I briefly worried that I had caused his brain damage. At least, I thought, he wouldn’t be bothering me again. For the most part, no one else did either.

The rest of my elementary school career was spent rather quietly. When forced to play soccer with my classmates, my attention turned to the nearby boundary fence covered in honeysuckle vines. Whenever the vines were in bloom, the class broke from play to swarm the flowers. I’d hum Lena Horne’s version of “Honeysuckle Rose” from Thousands Cheer quietly and to myself, since I didn’t think anyone would appreciate the fact that I had a song for nearly every occasion. Or understand. Except my brother. I’d tell him, since he was the only person I knew who spoke ‘Musical’ better than I did. As long as I had him to talk to when I got home from school, I remained relatively untroubled by my scholastic isolation.

When I was 12, three major events occurred that altered the course of my social life: I started middle school, entered into an aggressive attack of puberty and my brother moved to France, where he could watch musicals in French, thus combining two of his greatest passions. Though the news he sent of Gene Kelly dancing and singing with Catherine Deneuve made me nearly faint from excitement, our conversations were few, given the physical distance between us. The combination of being in a new school environment with a rapidly changing body and no brother to confide in made the issue of my own social awkwardness more acute. Since my body and voice had decided change without first consulting me, I decided I might as well go for broke, and change my personality too. Twelve-year-olds are famous for that.

I watched the other puberty-stricken people around me, noting what they wore and what they listened to and eventually learned how to be more like them, to blend in. Never entirely, but enough to be accepted, be invited to parties, and allowed to sit with others at lunch. Instead of humming Cole Porter tunes in public, I started tapping my feet to Adam and the Ants, the Go-Go’s, and other musicians favored by ‘tweens in 1982. I learned to speak the language of the people around me, to enter their world and shed some of my former reputation as an alien. I succeeded to some degree– gaining friends and higher social status, but I never felt that I could be completely myself around anyone. On the outside, I could appear as normal– whatever that was– as I wanted to be. Inwardly, I felt like an alien passing for human. The names Judy Garland and Fred Astaire never passed my lips in public, no matter how much I wanted them to.

As I got older and entered college, I found what I had secretly given up hope of ever finding– people my age who spoke openly of Leslie Caron, Alice Faye and Donald O’Conner. People who spoke my language. People like me. And they didn’t look like aliens, but rather attractive human beings who were proud of being different from 90% of the general population. Eventually, I learned to look upon my show tune-loving tendencies as a source of pride. Now, I sometimes sing them out loud specifically to annoy people. In fact, if you happen to walk through my neighborhood today and you listen very carefully, you might hear a bit of Mary Poppins, Meet Me in St. Louis, or the sound of other musicals coming from the open window of my home and me singing right along with them. I don’t really care who hears it. Unless it’s playing too loudly during my downstairs neighbor’s nap time. It’s one thing to have fun annoying people from time to time, but it’s an entirely other thing to be rude to one’s neighbors.