Sunday, November 14, 2010

BOYS


When I was in third grade, I had my first crush - on a boy named Stanley. He had wavy brown hair which he Brylcreemed into place with a comb every day and he had brown eyes and he wore neat khaki pants and plaid shirts with sharply- ironed creases on the sleeves. He had a dimple in one cheek and he was the smartest boy in Mrs. Danforth's class when it came to math and geography. I liked geography too and we liked to talk about the places we each might one day travel to when we were grown up, places that were only coordinates on our maps right now, places with strange, exotic names.

Stanley would put his protractor down and then write down some numbers, adding and subtracting them, and then he'd say things like, And Australia lies 37 degrees west of the unnamed atoll and other clever things like that.

I wasn't the only third-grade girl who thought Stanley was interesting, as third-grade boys went. At recess every morning, while the boys broke low-lying limbs from the trees and made them into weapons, chasing each other around the playground with their battle-cries resounding off the dugouts and backboards of the ball fields, we girls would gather armfuls of fallen brown pine-straw and build mammoth nests under the tall pines. We would sit inside of them, content to be out of the hot Florida sun and in the cool shade of the trees. We'd talk about stuff that third-grade girls talk about. Nail polish. Older sisters. Boys. Mostly which boys we thought were smart or cute. Which ones showed some kind of promise. Which ones ought to just be crossed off ALL the lists. Forever. Which ones we would grow up and marry and have babies with.

Even then the girls in my nest were planning out lives that followed neatly and precisely their mothers' trajectories for happiness, even if their mothers didn't seem all that happy. Mostly, girls spent recess in girl-talk and dreamy imaginings that followed pretty closely the happy-ever-after fairy tales that we'd all heard at bedtime: the handsome prince, the rescue from the heart of the forest, the dislodged poisoned apple. Most of the third-grade girls, in their dreaming, skipped right past the dating and engagement, past the wedding and honeymoon, and they went straight to the shining new appliances in their kitchens and the perfectly-manicured rooms of their houses and the master bedroom with its two matching twin beds. Third-grade girls saw themselves - and their future husbands - in lights, on-stage, the same way they saw the "happy" couples on television: Ozzie and Harriet, June and Ward Cleaver, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. No girl ever imagined herself as Dennis the Menace's mother. Neither would she imagine that she might become the funny, infinitely-likable spinster that Aunt Bea played on "Mayberry RFD." Third-grade girls dreamed themselves long-legged and beautiful, standing at the front doors of their houses, waving their husbands off to work each morning and waving them home again each evening. They imagined themselves with permed hair and well-manicured nails, dressed in satiny shirt-dresses over full petticoats and stockings, wearing pearls and pumps around the house, playing bridge by day with other neighborhood wives and serving delicious meals to their husbands each evening, husbands who would, of course, look more like Dr. Kildare or Ben Casey than Ward Cleaver. That's how third-grade girls saw it all. Back then.

And those wild third-grade boys, running full-tilt past us on the playground, kicking in our nests every chance they got, spitting into the dirt, cussing, those little spite-bags of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails, they had no idea what big plans the girls were hatching for them, even then.

Still, I knew even back then my own dreaming was too odd - compared to the other girls in class - so I never shared the "dream" of my life with them. I had this vague future in mind that included a husband who would be taller than me, a charming man who smiled a lot and liked dogs and who'd wear glasses when he read. He'd wear comfy sweaters and button-down shirts when he got home from work. I think I imagined him as a scientist. Or a teacher. A likable chap, but really smart and terribly interested in the planets and stars and old maps. A man who knew what a compass and sextant were and how to use them. A rare sort of man.

He wouldn't mind me humming at the kitchen sink while I washed and dried the dinner plates and glasses, and I would like hearing him putter around in his tidy study, looking for something he'd misplaced - or which I had put away in its proper place because that's how I was hard-wired, even in third grade. But at the end of the day, after the dishes were done and his paperwork was finished, we'd sit together in front of a crackling fire and we'd drink big mugs of steaming hot chocolate with marshmallows melting in them and we'd watch the fire and speak together quietly about what we'd read or heard or seen that day. Outside, the snow would be falling in the darkening night and any troubles the world had would seem far, far away from us.

I wouldn't be wearing a petticoat or stockings under my shift-dress, and I sure wouldn't have on pearls or nail polish. I'd have my messy hair piled up on top of my head and I'd be barefoot except for some wool socks. I'd be sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with books piled up next to me. My boots would be next to his boots, by the back door radiator, drying out. I suppose I didn't really "see" any children back then, in third grade. That would come later. Mostly, I was trying to figure out how to be the kind of woman I wanted to be and to be at ease with a man.

Mostly, I think, I am still trying to figure that out.

It was fun each morning to sit in that nest at recess and listen to the other girls talk about their future "television" lives and who they might fall in love with and marry and have babies with and what they would name their children and all of that. And it was nice, in those first days, to know that I liked a boy and he liked me back, that he would sit in the lunchroom and library with me and we would talk about places we had only read about in books.

It wasn't long though before one of the "nestlings" ruined that. Jealousy carried a bright and vicious torch back then when it came to third-grade Southern girls. Janice had stepped into our nest one morning, looking very smug, and she'd eye-balled me as she sat down and told all the girls that one of the boys in class had seen Stanley put his finger into his nose and then put it right into his mouth. She laughed a real ugly laugh then while the other girls all gasped and said, Eewwww and Nasty. Then they looked at me and didn't say another word. They didn't have to. In the deep South, the silences were as vicious as any words could be. And we all knew that, even in the third grade.

I didn't think it could be true though and I said so to them. Not about Stanley. He was so neat. And smart. And, after all, weren't spite and meanness and jealousy the chronic guests of our particular nest?

Later, in the lunchroom, the boys jeered at Stanley when he sat to eat his lunch at the table with me, wondering loudly what kind of girl would eat lunch with a "booger-eater." Stanley was embarrassed. I was embarrassed. But we never spoke of it. He hung his head and stood up: he put his tray up and went back to the classroom. I sat there by myself, my face turning a bright crimson, and I didn't know what to do. Or say. I sat there, rooted to my chair, staring down at my bruised apple and half sandwich, pretending to be interested in the little half-pint carton of pasteurized whole milk.

And, just like that, we were no longer friends, Stanley and me. He'd been bullied back into the world of third-grade boys, a world so far removed from what I knew that I could barely see him clearly anymore. Or maybe it's more accurate to say I couldn't see the things in him I'd seen before and liked about him. In the days after that, he spent recesses running with the boys on the playground, playing war, smashing everything to smithereens with a big stick, kicking dirt into the girls' nests, mocking them. He went off to eat his lunch at the boys' table, smashing sandwiches down into milk cartons and smirking and sniggering at "fat girls" who happened to walk by the table where the boys sat. I went back to sitting with the girls at their "girls-only" table, not really listening anymore to their girl-talk and who they liked. I mostly sat there sipping my milk, chewing on silence, choking down my half-eaten sandwich, swallowing hard, as if it wasn't hung in my throat like the Queen's poison apple. . . .