The sunlight is filtering down through the canopy of massive live oak branches that overarch my street, and I’m caught in a reverie as I walk home from the bus stop. There aren’t sidewalks on my street, and the gaggle of kids sticks to the sandy edges of the road. We all live on this block, sandwiched between the bay and the salty inlet. It’s one of the first few days of kindergarten. I’m pleased with myself, feeling like a big kid. I was worried because I am still only four and the children in my class are already five, but it turns out I am not so behind. I can already read, and they can’t. I look down at my Buster Brown shoes and have some doubts, though. The other kids can tie shoes. I’m going to have to learn to tie shoes. But I hate wearing shoes.
Some of the boys are roughhousing and shouting, but I’m paying no attention to what is exciting them. I’m looking up at the sun on the leaves; I’m feeling the early autumn breeze. I’m thinking about getting home and taking off my shoes, climbing up into my most favorite oak; that’s where I go to talk to God.
Suddenly, David Askew’s face is right in front of mine, red with rage. He pushes into my chest, hard. Spittle is flying from the corners of his mouth. I realize sharply that David has been yelling, and he’s been yelling at me.
“You get on the other side of the street!” he shouts again, gives me another great push. “This is the boys’ side of the street!”
David has been my first friend here. We moved to Virginia a few months ago. He lives in the house behind mine, two little beachy bungalows on a double lot. He’s an admirable daredevil on his Big Wheel, and he has a secret passageway in his house that connects his closet with his parents’ closet. We’ve played every day. I’m stunned and confused. Other little boys are laughing at me as he repeats himself again.
I plant my hands on my hips and announce, “That’s stupid! Girls-can-do-anything-that-boys-can.”
That’s what I’ve been told. And I believe it with perfect faith. It’s 1979. I have a full-color poster of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman above my bed.
He has no smart retort. He swings his Incredible Hulk lunchbox at my face with all his skinny might. The painted metal hits me squarely on the forehead, and his gang cheers.
“Kick her butt!” somebody yells. I can’t get used to this word, butt. Nobody used that word where I came from. My people say dupa. My mother explained that dupa is a Polish word. There aren’t Polish people here, or nobody that I know. There are black people, though. I thought they were only on television.
David smiles triumphantly as I reel with pain. It really hurts. I’ve never been hit like that before. Tears well up in my eyes and spill down my cheeks. But I keep walking. On the same side of the road.
They’re following me and taunting me, but I’m almost home. I can see Mommy on the front porch waiting for me, and they all scatter when they see her too.
She puts ice cubes in a dishrag and presses it to my forehead. I stare in the mirror above the bathroom sink in wonder. There’s a huge green goose egg rising. It seems reasonable that the green Hulk would make this green lump on my forehead.
My mother is a loud woman and almost six feet tall. Kids get scared of her if she’s angry. And she is angry.
She treads through the backyard barefoot, a menthol cigarette dangling from one hand. I imagine I hear the earth rumbling from the force of her steps. Brown leaves crunch in the sand. David’s mother is small, with a pointy nose and a southern accent. She drinks iced tea and I know she hits him with a belt. She answers the door and I can tell from the sound of her voice that she’s going to find that belt.
Later, he has to apologize to me. But he doesn’t mean it. He looks at me with contempt. David Askew and I will never be friends again. And I know now that there’s a difference between boys and girls.
My daughter Stella is about four and a half when she starts to be very preoccupied with whom she will marry. She wants to talk about it a lot, who might be in love with her. Her top pick is Wilder, the boy who lives across the street from us. I’m good friends with his mother, Chrystal, and she and I are pregnant with our second babies at the same time. Wilder is a year younger than Stella, and they are best friends. He’s a really good looking kid; big brown eyes and a mop of wavy caramel colored hair over smoothly chubby cheeks. His grandfather is from Vietnam.
As Stella rhapsodizes about her wedding plans one day, my husband interjects, “Wilder’s not Jewish. Maybe you could pick a nice Jewish boy to marry.”
Stella gives it a think and replies, “Well, Wilder taught me about Chinese New Year. Maybe I will teach him the Hebrew alphabet and then he will change into Jewish.”
But it puts a worm of doubt in her mind. She starts considering Jakob, or one of the Arnowitz boys. It always comes back around to Wilder, though.
She and Wilder get in a fight one afternoon. She bites him. Hard. He goes home with his mother, sobbing, saying he will never play with her again. Stella stands on our porch, tear-streaked, swatting back her mess of tangly blonde hair, wailing “No! No! No! Wilder come back! I love you! I love you! I am going to marry you!”
She makes an I’m Sorry card with hearts and flowers, and we put it in his mailbox.
My husband explains to her that evening that maybe she shouldn’t tell boys that she is going to marry them.
“I think ‘I love you’ might be too much, too,” he says, “That probably is going to scare them.”
Stella is not pleased with this explanation. Her face twists into a grimace.
“Love is not scary!” she says, “ It is great to love people. I love everybody. Love is the best from anything!”
I cringe. I know. I was never any good at playing it cool, never any good at sophistication. I just loved like my heart was going to burst, loved with a snake jaw. And boys did not like that.
I take Stella into the bedroom and we cuddle up under the blankets. I hold her tight. We have a lot of good conversations this way.
“Anyway,” she says, her face sparking with a smile, “I can tell that Wilder loves me back.”
“How can you tell that?” I ask.
She blushes. She giggles a little. I have never seen this before.
“Because,” she says, whispery, “I can just see it in his eyes when he looks at me. And also, he kissed me!”
“So that’s how I know.”
Another little giggle. A sigh.
My hands feel so cold. I don’t want to say it, because I don’t want it to be true, but . . . “Stella, you see, um, sometimes boys might want to kiss you, but they might not love you.”
“What the?! That’s silly. Why would somebody want to kiss you if they do not love you?”
I take a deep breath and plow ahead.
“Okay, look . . . you want to just kiss somebody if you love them a lot and it should be a very special thing. But sometimes some people might just want to kiss because it just feels good to have a kiss but they might not really love you or want such a thing to be special. And that’s kind of horrible that they might not know how to love somebody but you shouldn’t just go around letting just anybody kiss you because it might really hurt your feelings if they don’t love you. Do you understand?”
“Well, I really do love Wilder and he loves me and that’s why we kiss.”
I don’t want to tell her that kissing is bad. I don’t want her to feel ashamed. At her age, I already felt ashamed. I knew it was supposed to be something bad.
I can’t believe she is telling me this stuff, blushing and giggling like I am her girlfriend. I would have rather died than tell my mother about such a thing.
“Well, that does sound pretty special. Wilder is a very nice boy. But maybe you should just keep it as a very special thing and not do it a lot, okay?”
It’s the summer before first grade. My mother has just decided I have to start wearing a shirt outside. Scotty Martin and I are playing in his side yard in his plastic wading pool. His little sister Theresa has wandered back inside his house to stay near their mother. They are both white-blonde, with big blue eyes set wide apart. They are my new neighbors and they are pretty fun, but Theresa fell out of a shopping cart at the grocery store and cracked her skull a little so she has to wear a helmet and she can’t play too rough. “That’s why you should never play around in a shopping cart,” everybody’s mother says.
Scotty looks around and realizes that we are alone together.
“Do you know how to do it?” he asks.
“Do it, like on the soap operas. You have to kiss a lot and you rub your things together.” He motions towards my pale yellow terry-cloth shorts.
“Pee-pees,” he adds, in case I’m not getting it.
“Oh. Okay. Yeah, I know.”
“If we go hide somewhere, we could do it.”
Scotty has a little room under the stairwell in his house. It has shag carpeting and even an electrical outlet. Later, after his father gets stationed somewhere else and Darcy is my new neighbor, she and I will spend hours and hours in this little room playing “Another One Bites the Dust” over and over on her big sister’s record player. But today, we don’t need an electrical outlet, just a place to hide.
Scotty pulls down his shorts. I’ve never seen a penis before. It’s floppy, and kind of weird.
“Now you. And we rub our things together.”
I pull down my shorts. We rub. His wet hair falls on my cheek. He smells like summertime. His body is warm.
His mother starts calling for us. We pull up our shorts and run. We tear through his house, and our bare feet slap across the kitchen floor as we slide past his mother, her hands plunging into the dishwater in the sink. His mother wears bright yellow dish gloves; my mother does dishes with her bare hands.
“We’re just playin’, Ma’am!” he calls out to her as he grabs me by the elbow and steers me into the master bedroom. Lots of kids in Virginia call their parents sir and ma’am. My mother tells kids to stop it and call her Janet.
We slide underneath his parents’ bed. There’s barely room, but we manage to press our bodies together. We mash our lips together repeatedly. We make mmmm sounds like on the soap operas and tilt our heads back and forth.
“What are you guys doin’ under there?” It’s Theresa. I look up and see her little feet, her pudgy toes. We scramble out from under the bed and run back through the house, and outside.
“We can go over in my trees,” I say. Then I look down and see that my necklace is missing. It’s a golden ballerina with legs that really move, swinging beneath her teeny golden tutu. The chain must have snapped when we were under the bed.
“Oh no!” I cry, but I’m afraid to go back to look for it. I’m starting to be scared that we are acting suspiciously. I’m afraid Mrs. Martin will want to know what we were doing under the bed. But I’m really afraid of her just finding it there later, too. She might start putting two and two together. I’m paralyzed with indecision.
“C’mon,” Scotty urges, “Don’t worry about it. Which tree?”
I lead him down the broken concrete driveway to a big oak between our two houses. It has two fat trunks, with a hollow space in the middle. We squeeze between and kiss again. And again.
“ANNA LEA!!” This time it’s my mom who is calling. It must be lunchtime already.
I look down at the Mickey Mouse watch on my right wrist. My Aunt Sharon always gets mad and complains to my mother that she shouldn’t let me wear my watch on the right wrist, because it’s only proper on the left. When she says that my mother says:
“Who the hell cares, Sharon?!”
But my watch isn’t working. It’s stopped. I suddenly have a horrible falling feeling. Like I’m falling down and down too fast and can’t stop. I’m remembering walking through the dark upstairs hallway in Granny Fidishun’s house. The big, ornately framed picture of Jesus moves. It’s lenticular. He’s looking down, blood rivulets flowing from the thorns crammed into His head, but when you walk past He raises His eyes and looks at you imploringly, miserably. In anguish. Because you are so Bad. Granny Fidishun points a yellowy, gnarly finger at me and says, “He is always watching you, kismalac. He will see if you are kissing boys! He is always watching everything you do!” The Magyar word for piglet, that’s what she calls me.
I look at Scotty Martin in horror. God stopped my watch. He tried to warn me by breaking my necklace but I wasn’t listening. Then he stopped my watch at the moment when I became Bad.
I promise that I will never ever do it with a boy again. But God knows that I do not really love Him enough.
The Mickey Mouse watch gets thrown away.
“Eh,” my mother says, “It was a piece-a-shit.”
But I think about it for years. Lying in a garbage dump some place, still accusing me, with its hands pointing to that moment in time.
I’m jiggling newborn Lev on my hip as I stand on our porch. My husband and Wilder’s father, Greg, are on the side of the house, inspecting the new fence that we’re putting up. We’ve gotten a VW bus and it’s always parked in front of the house on the street. It’s kind of the color of banana cream pie filling and we call it The Nana Splot because that’s what “banana split” became, coming out of Stella’s mouth. Stella and Wilder like to play in it a lot. I’m swinging the baby as I turn around, and I see them there in the back of the bus.
Stella’s shorts are pulled down around her splayed knees and Wilder is crouched down, eyeballing her vulva.
“Whoa! Whoa! Stella, put your pants on! C’mon outta there, right now!” I yell, pointing and snapping my fingers. The windows are open on the bus, they can hear me. They both tumble out onto the sidewalk.
Greg comes around from the side of the house. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, Stella had her pants off in the bus there and Wilder was taking a good look.”
“Oh. Uh, c’mon buddy, let’s go home and have a little talk.”
“What’s wrong, Mama? Am I in Big Trouble?” Stella asks, unsure.
“Uh, no,” I say, “But I think we need to talk a little more about Private Parts being private. Let’s go upstairs.”
We go up to the bedroom. My mind is racing as we climb the stairs.
“Look, Stella, the thing is . . .”
“I’m supposed to keep my Private Parts private?”
“Yep, that’s why we call your Girl Parts private. You’re a big kid now, so that means keeping those special parts to yourself, okay? Remember how we talked about how no one should touch you there? People shouldn’t even really be looking at them, either. It’s not ‘cause there’s anything bad about them. But they’re special, okay? Just for you.”
“But you and Papa can see me naked, right? And Levka?”
“Yes. But you’re too big now to play around naked with your friends, okay?”
“Tell me, Stella, what if somebody touches you where it’s private?”
“I will tell you. I can tell you no matter what because I will not be in Big Trouble ‘cause they will be in Big Trouble.”
“No matter what anybody says, that’s true.”
“And they will be in Big Trouble.”
“Yes. If any grown-up touches you, or asks you to touch them, or wants to look at you naked, or wants you to look at them naked. Or even if it is another kid, a big kid. They will be in Big Trouble. Not you, never you. You tell me. You can always, always tell me anything. Your body is for you and nobody has the right to do that, okay? It’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to fight them. You understand? You yell, and you scream, and you say NO.”
“Why do you have real little tears, Mama?”
“Because I didn’t know this stuff when I was a kid, okay? And touching a kid where you’re not supposed to is really bad, it’s a way of hurting somebody, okay? And somebody did that to me, and I didn’t know how to tell anybody. I don’t want that to ever happen to you, ever. I was really scared and I didn’t know what to do.”
Stella wipes my face. “You didn’t know that you wouldn’t be in Big Trouble?”
“No. Not really. I thought it was my fault. But it wasn’t.”
“You didn’t tell your mama?’
“Nope. She doesn’t know about it. I never told anybody. But you would tell me, right? Because you know what to do, and you don’t have to be scared.”
“I’m not scared of anything. I’m a very brave girl. But . . . but Wilder didn’t hurt me, okay?”
“Oh, no, sweetie, I know. Wilder doesn’t want to hurt you.”
I’m 11 years old. One afternoon, my mother starts opening dresser drawers and packing up our clothes. We’re leaving, before my father comes home from work. He’s not supposed to know we are leaving, or where we are going.
I stare at my quilt. It’s patchwork pinks and my grandmother made it for me. It’s been my favorite thing and I want to take it with me, but I know there’s no room, and anyway, she was laying on it when it happened. He pinned her down on my bed and punched her in the face until her jaw was broken. I stood there screaming at him to stop. I would have called the police again, to tell them he was going to kill her, but after I did that the first time, he started ripping the phone out of the jack and smashing it before he starts.
That seems like a long time ago now. Nothing so bad has happened for a while. Just yelling, accusing. It used to make him very mad that she was too fat and ugly. But now she is too skinny and too pretty. She must be screwing somebody. It used to make him mad that she didn’t have a job, then her job was bad and we didn’t have enough money. But now her new job is too good. She got a promotion. She must be screwing somebody at her work. We haven’t had any midnight trips to the emergency room, but he’s marking down the numbers on the odometer again to keep track of how far she’s driving each day. He steals her underwear and threatens to “send them to a lab.” I’m not even sure what that means.
But we’ve moved into a new house in a different neighborhood. And now my mother has a friend. We walk to Lynn’s house carrying all of our stuff. It’s a really long walk for my sisters; they’re small. I don’t go to school for several days. We stay in Lynn’s house, and when Daddy comes around and bangs on the doors and the windows and yells that he is going to kill us all, we lay on the floor and hold our breath and make no noise.
Lynn has really long straight hair. When she gets up in the morning she pours a cup of coffee and then always says, “Time for a shit and a shave!” She’s short and skinny, but she seems so strong.
“Let him try to get through my door,” she says, “I don’t give a shit about that motherfucker. I will get out my shotgun and I will shoot him dead.”
I believe her, too. I wish that it would happen.
Lynn has three kids. Tammy is right about my sisters’ ages, four or five. She has a glass eye. I try not to stare. Angel is the baby. She’s not really such a baby but she never talks, so she seems littler. And there is Kevin. Kevin is a little older than me. He has magnificently red curls and he’s a really, really good singer. He gets all the solo parts in the school chorus. I’m in love with him.
All of us kids bunk in the big bedroom. It’s supposed to be fun because Lynn has a giant waterbed. But I wake up at night with Kevin’s hands in my underwear. I pretend like I’m sleeping, I’m too scared to say anything. I just start tossing around a little like I’m having a nightmare, then I pretend to wake up. He always stops. This keeps happening.
I can’t tell on him. We’re living here, and we have nowhere else to go. And it’s probably kind of my fault to begin with, because I have such a crush on him. Had, anyway. So I don’t do anything. I pretend it’s not happening. But I don’t play Miami Vice or Thundercats with him anymore. I devote myself to my schoolwork; I get into a new Gifted class. I spend hours a day on my ballet practice; I get skipped ahead and start pointe a year early.
I start sleeping on my stomach, with the blankets tightly wrapped around me, tucked underneath me all around, pulled up over my head. My father gets a Shitty-Apartment-In-West-Ocean-View, and we move back into our new house. I don’t think about Kevin. But I sleep like that, cocooned in blankets with my head covered, until I’m in my thirties.
My husband comes home with a lunchbox for Stella. She’s been asking for one. A lot of other kids at her co-op have them, but she’s been just making do with the insulated lunch bag I got from the library’s summer reading program. Not the coolest.
This new one is a Star Wars lunchbox. She clutches it to her chest lovingly and hops up and down, her mouth open wide with joy. Darth Vader brandishes a red light saber on the front of the metal box. She was Darth Vader for last Halloween.
Then she stops and appraises it with a wary eye.
“Did you have to get this in the Boys’ Section?” she asks. She’s started to notice that I have to buy her superhero shirts in the Boys’ Department, and a lot of the toys she likes are separate from the aisles of pink plastic that she is supposed to orbit.
“No,” David answers, “They just had all the lunchboxes together.”
“Oh,” says Stella, obviously relieved, “That’s good. Sometimes stores don’t know that boys and girls can like the same things.”
“Well,” I say, “It’s not just stores. Lots of people think that boys and girls can’t like the same things or do the same things. Do you think that boys and girls are so different?”
She crinkles her brow to give this some thought and then offers with a shrug, “Boys don’t have vaginas.”
I laugh. “I’ve never thought about it exactly that way.”
She looks at me like I’m crazy. “Well, it’s true.”
“It is,” I agree. “Tell me, Stella, has anybody ever told you that you couldn’t do something or been mean to you because you’re a girl?”
She looks at me again with an incredulously crumpled face. “No.”
I laugh again.
Then I sigh.
And I wait.