Last weekend, because of a change in bus schedules, I rode the train back from Dan’s instead of my usual Greyhound. It takes longer, and involves an extra connection, but I made the best of it, gazing out the window, my iPod providing a soundtrack of favorites as we rumbled past several nondescript towns before running alongside a graveyard. I looked out at the rows of uniform stones, but instead of my usual feelings of loss and fear about the brevity of life, I thought of middle school, a time when life seemed interminable.
I was in eighth grade when I attended my first funeral. My grandmother had seemed ancient for as long as I could remember. I found her cold and humorless. Looking back, it occurs to me that as the last grandchild and the youngest by many years, I’d come at a time when she no longer wished to open herself to new attachments. But all I knew then was that she’d never been particularly interested in me. Instead of feeling sad as I stood at her open grave, I was fascinated by the rituals that surround death and the raw emotions of those around me who were grieving. I’d never seen people so real and so exposed — my aunt’s mascara running unchecked down her cheeks, my father wiping his tears and his dripping nose with the back of his hand. I loved them for showing themselves so openly, for being genuine, especially since, from the moment I entered middle school two years earlier, most everyone around me had seemed so false.
It started on the first day of sixth grade. I had spent my aimless summer months reading Judy Blume books on the beach, waiting for my favorite song, Heartbeat, It’s a Love Beat to come on the radio, and playing Clue with my friend Helene in her paneled basement. By late August, I felt restless and ready to experience my first new school since kindergarten. I knew a lot of the kids since we’d been in the same grade school, but as soon as I climbed onto the bus on that long anticipated September morning, I felt alone.
I settled into my seat and was looking out the dirty window when I heard Jill tell Barbara that Andrea had a new lace blouse she was planning to wear that day.
“Let me see!” they clamored when Andrea got on at the next stop.
I glanced down at my t-shirt with its fading puppy decal and wondered why clothes were suddenly worth talking about. Jill and the others broke into a loud fit of giggling, and I turned toward them. Something had happened to them over the summer. Their lips shone with gloss and their hair was feathered in the careful style I’d seen on girls in magazines. They no longer looked like real people.
Helene got on the bus then and sat next to me. She began describing a police show she’d watched with her dad the night before but I only half-listened. I looked at Helene in her loose overalls, handed down from her older brother, and wondered if the two of us had somehow missed a meeting where the rest of the girls in our grade agreed upon a drastic change in priorities.
Within that first week, Jill and her friends were dubbed the “in-crowd.” It seemed they knew something my friends and I didn’t. They grew more and more involved with having the perfect wardrobe and accessories, and a lot of other girls in our grade tried to emulate them. Given my disability, I knew I wouldn’t succeed in blending in. Instead of competing in the middle school fashion show, I entered deeper into the world of music and books. By seventh grade, I’d traded in The Defranco Family for wordsmiths like Bob Dylan. While I didn’t quite trade in my Judy Blume books, I added J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to my reading list. My older cousin had recommended it to me after I told her my opinion of the phonies in my class. By the time I stood in the cemetery the following year, I was more than ready for authenticity from the people around me.
Now my own lively boy is in sixth grade, which amazes me given that the tangled emotions of that time somehow still seem so fresh. It’s remarkable to have such a close, intimate relationship with someone so other than who I had been at that age. A big part of that otherness is that he’s male. (I was only vaguely aware of the existence of boys in middle school.) It’s also that he fits in so well with his classmates. He’s confident, witty, and outgoing — qualities I can finally claim now that I’m in my forties — and not just able-bodied, but athletic. And while an extreme focus on appearances was an affliction belonging almost entirely to the girls when I was growing up, as it probably still is now, guys have their own versions. For Ethan and his friends, it’s the need to seem cool and unflappable.
When I got home from my long train commute, Ethan gave me a silent half nod from his place on the couch. We’d been apart all weekend and I’d hoped for a bit more warmth at our reunion — not that I expected it, especially in front of Carolyn, the pretty high school senior who watches him for me. While she filled me in on the details of their day, Ethan gazed disinterestedly toward the muted TV. I found myself wondering what he and I would have thought of each other if we’d been sixth graders together. My guess is he’d have no more use for quiet, bookish me than I’d have had for one more kid who worked to blend in perfectly.
“Are you getting hungry, sweetie?” I asked him.
Ethan shrugged and reached for his water glass on the coffee table. He took a sip, accidentally spilling some down the front of his shirt. I watched as he flushed with embarrassment, quickly eyeing Carolyn to see if she’d noticed. That’s when I remembered something I’d learned in the thirty odd years since middle school. Any façade is actually a sign of vulnerability.
“God,” Carolyn said. “I do that all the time. I can’t even drink milk in the school cafeteria without soaking myself.”
Ethan visibly relaxed at her admission, and in that moment, I loved them both so much — Ethan for the soft place behind his bravado, and Carolyn for revealing her own flawed self in response to that glimpse of his.
As good as Ethan is at keeping up a cool front, I’m privy to his tender side too. After Carolyn left, he told me more about his weekend. He’d practiced with his dad for the upcoming baseball tryouts.
“I’m nervous,” he admitted, scooting closer to me on the couch.
“You’ll do great,” I assured him. It’s such a privilege to watch Ethan grow into his preteen self, to see up close just how dimensional this cool kid is, and to be there to witness all his phases.