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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Can You Imagine Middle Schoolers Tackling Mature Subject Matter?
February 20, 2008, 8:02 am
Filed under: cartoons, comics, elementary school, fifth grade, forbidden, innocent, naive, naughty, sexuality, songs

*UPDATE* Unrelated to the following italicized hissy fit, we have been reinvited to the literary festival to do a panel on blogging and self-publishing for middle schoolers, perhaps featuring some of our less incendiary CISWY stories.

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Apologies as always for the lack of posting. The reason is not lack of stories; we’ve several in the chute (and still we crave more…).

No. We’ve not posted anything because it took me a while to get over the shock and disappointment from a recent CISWY turn of events: we were asked to do a panel at a local middle school’s literary festival, and then — once said festival’s organizer actually read the book — disinvited due to CISWY’s “mature” subject matter.

Am I really that naive, in thinking that the organizer overreacted, made a huge mistake, or at least an unnecessary and pre-emptive concession? CISWY is about the things that actually happened to us in grade and middle school, and how we actually felt at the time. Parents might like to imagine that their grade- and middle school children ponder nothing but fluffy unicorn manes, enrolling at Hogwarts, and scoring winning soccer goals, but IT IS NOT TRUE. And these kids need to know that other people, other kids feel the same way, and that they are neither warped nor alone.

Here are a few of the things I did as a relatively sheltered, somewhat dutiful Catholic girl from a well-adjusted suburban family, two full years before I went into middle school. First read, and then consider: Do you think it would have been a good idea, possibly even therapeutic and healthy, for me to feel comfortable talking about mature themes with adults and other peers?

Years Before I Was Allowed to See R-Rated Movies
by S. D. Rosa
Age Ten at the Time

I spent fifth grade in a segregated geek/G.A.T.E. class on a regular elementary school campus. We were quite sheltered compared to our “regular” campus peers, which meant that our complete obsession with anything naughty had limited information feed lines. My friends Mike, Miho, and I had to bounce everything off each other.

Like everyone else in our class of clearly demarcated dorks, were given lots of self-directed free time with which to develop our supposedly impressive intellects. This means we were forever dicking around, telling proto-L33T Dolly Parton jokes that ended with the victim spelling “80087355” on their calculator, making cartoons and comic strips, and modifying the lyrics of every song we learned to see who could come up with the filthiest result. In the interests of propriety, I will not reproduce our efforts here, but please know that there is a reason I smirk every time I hear the lovely Quaker ditty Simple Gifts.

One song had, however, been pre-altered for us. Somehow, we came into possession of the following lyrics for that classic dance hall tune, Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay:

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay
I met a boy one day
He gave me fifty cents
To go behind the fence

He pulled my panties down
Then pushed me to the ground
He counted 1-2-3
Then stuck it into me

My mother was surprised
To see my belly rise
My father jumped for joy
It was a baby boy!

Every ten-year-old we knew, and even those we only knew of, could sing this lovely celebration of rape and teen pregnancy. It quickly became one of our standards.

Mike, Miho, and I decided that, given our considerable free time, we should give the song a comic strip counterpart. We named the protagonist Selena, made her a teenage prostitute, and set about illustrating her adventures. She was insatiable, our Selena. Mostly she would meet a man and then discreetly walk out of a frame, but there were times when her hunger demanded something more substantial, such as the planet Saturn. I can only imagine what my parents would have thought had they had seen these still very childish drawings, which contained no penises (ew!) or indeed anything more graphic than a long shot of Saturn going up Selena’s skirt between two verrrrry widely spread legs.

This may sound horrifying, but I don’t really think it is. We were not actually interested in the sexual aspects of our songs or cartoons, only in the thrill of dabbling in such absolutely forbidden themes. (Oh, and cursing a LOT. That was a thrill, too.)

I myself was so completely clueless about sexuality and sex — I knew that a man could put his penis in a woman’s vagina, but not one jot else — that I didn’t realize the reason I liked climbing the two-story firefighter-style pole on the jungle gym was because every time I did it, I had an orgasm. (Who had ever heard of orgasms?) I even tried to talk to Miho about it: “When I climb that pole, my butt itches. Does that ever happen to you?” Miho said no, as she preferred to stay on the ground and play soccer, but she did ask her mom, who said that she sometimes got an itchy butt at high altitudes. Since her mother only spoke Japanese, I am guessing something got lost in translation, both coming and going. I couldn’t get up the nerve to ask my own mom, because we were Catholics, and if something happy came out of wrapping (not even rubbing) my legs around that pole and climbing, then it had to be bad.

My friends and I were both naive and innocent. We spent recess playing games like Statue Maker and soccer. I was fond of using my transparent red visor cap to catch the bees that gathered pollen from our playground’s clover. The three of us liked to suck nectar from the honeysuckles growing along the playground fence. We were neither warped nor damaged, nor were we exposed to “bad influences.” We were simply curious fifth grade children with both too much and too little information.



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.



The Sex Change of Zyax II
October 23, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: ass-kickery, elementary school, name-calling, sexuality, tether ball, Texas

By Liz Henry
Age 10 at the time

Almost every day in 4th grade my best friend Laurie Arminia and I would run outside to play under the geodesic dome monkeybars at recess. We’d comb through the sand with our fingers and explain to each other where everything was in our space city, and where the farms were, and the roads. I’d look up to see Laurie lost in thought with sand in her hands, her thick black hair flying around like a Shetland pony’s mane. The grey steel monkeybar dome overhead saved our space colony people from the poison atmosphere of Planet Zyax, which we had named after a book called “The Humans of Zyax II”. Other people ran around whacking tether balls or playing four-square. Laurie and I were little kids. No one paid any attention to us. We’d climb to the top of the dome and survey our planet like twin gods. Twice a week, instead of going to recess, she and I would stay inside being “library aides”, shelving books and helping kindergarteners learn to read. Doesn’t it sound like a fairy tale? Too good to be true!

The next year everything changed horribly. My family moved to Houston, Texas, which I had pictured as a sepia-toned dusty Western movie. Perhaps I’d ride my horse to school, tying it up to the hitching post!

That really was too good to be true. Texas was a brutal suburban landscape of malls and golf courses. The 5th grade girls wore 3-inch heels. I was as short as most kindergarteners, still wearing Garanimals, midget-sized Wranglers, and (horrors, for piano recitals) dresses with smocking across the chest. Middle class 5th grade Texas girls in 1980 wore Jordache jeans and couple-skated with boys at the roller rink. I
was in deep trouble.

Luckily, before school started, I met Jennifer, who lived around the block. Though Jennifer was a year younger than me, she became my friend. I’d dial her phone number over and over; I can still hear the song of it in the beeps, 444-6784, 444-6784; a busy signal. Jennifer had a makeup mirror that flipped over and lit up to show what you looked like in night and day lighting, far away or magnified. She had enormous makeup kits. I’d lie on her waterbed (?!) to watch her smear on base, foundation, powder, eyeliner, lip liner, lip stick, mascara, and 5 kinds of eyeshadow while we listened to Prince albums as loud as possible and Jennifer insulted me in ways I didn’t understand. “Quit watching me with your beady little roach eyes!” or “I think you’re a Mexican, you have squinty eyes like a Mexican.” It was as unlike Laurie Arminia as you could get. Jennifer was completely alien. I learned all the words to the Prince songs. Jennifer was like Prince, and David Bowie, with their makeup and thick eyeliner, screaming and posing, dancing on the rim of the bed, all the gleaming album covers and posters and magazines.

One day at recess a horrible girl followed me outside from the “cafetorium”. She had been making fun of how I ate my sandwich while reading a book. Cheryl wore suede ankle boots. Her mom’s boyfriend took them on ski vacations. Cheryl said that reading was gay, and that I should be named Liz the Lez. To escape her, I went out into the blazing sun of the sidewalk and the heat-shimmered parking lot. Other kids followed us out, hooting. I saw Jennifer’s face laughing at me in the crowd. She was chanting with them, “Liz the Lez, Liz the Lez.” Someone pointed out that I was about to cry. People were crowding around me, too close, like stampeding animals. I felt sweaty and scared and a little dizzy. Sounds all started to blend together, babbling nonsense sounds, waves or wind or a waterfall over rocks.

Cheryl — with her blond, feathered hair and her disco metallic shirt — came right up into my face really close and went, “Is it true? I heard it was. I heard you used to be a boy, and you got a sex change. That’s why you’re so flat. You don’t wear a bra. And you’re like a boy and like boy things. Cause you’re really a boy. LEZZIE.” I realized then that “Lez” meant lesbian. All the advice my mom and dad had ever given to me, like Just walk away and Just ignore it, flew out of my head. I felt like my body disappeared, and I was like a cloud of light and air. And I said this… in a voice that could rule the world… I’m not making it up:

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve EVERY HEARD IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. How could I have a sex change when I’m only in 5th grade. I’m not even hitting puberty yet. And even if I had a sex change, SO WHAT IF I DID. And if I was a boy, I wouldn’t be a lesbian, don’t you know anything? And we’re little kids, you dumbass, we don’t have sex anyway, which is what it means, it’s about who you have sex with, I have read about it, and people have the right to do whatever they want because it’s a free country, and I believe in free love and I have constitutional rights, and I’m not a lesbian I’m BISEXUAL.”

Then my body came back into sweaty existence, and my head came back down onto my body, and I ran into the school and hid in the bathroom and cried so hard that snot ran down the back of my throat and I sort of choked and threw up. I went to the nurse and my mom came to get me. They asked me what happened, so I just said that I threw up after lunch. I spent the rest of the day in bed with an ice-cold towel on my head,
sipping ginger ale, reading science fiction, and feeling very confused.

I was still friends with Jennifer until 9th grade. My mom said that Jennifer was a bad person to be friends with. She wasn’t nice. My mom was right, but there was something my mom didn’t get. I needed to understand what was the deal with Jennifer.

My life has been something of a variation on that theme ever since.