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After last week’s post, I’m sure you knew this was coming….

It was late afternoon, after school, and the boy who lived not quite next door was sitting at our dining room table talking to my mother.

“So my mother says,” he tells her, “‘They only bother you because they’re jealous of you.’

“‘Right,’ I say to her. Just what every kid wants, to get beaten up on the way home from school everyday. I mean, what on earth would they have to be jealous of?’

“‘They’re jealous because they wish they were as smart as you.’

“Really. How out of touch with a teenager’s reality can an adult be. Sure, I get good grades, but I have no real friends and not even the prospect of a girlfriend.”

At that point I was wondering how I could subtly drop the hint that I had a crush on him. He was cute in an awkward, smart kid, sort of way. I’m not sure what I said. I know I said something, but he didn’t seem to get the hint.

I can’t trace the rest of the conversation, but next thing I know, the boy next door and I were hatching a plan. There was a footpath that went through a tunnel that allowed kids in the neighborhood to get to school without crossing a street. Somehow, the idea of, let’s say, decorating the walls of the tunnel was raised. Weirdly, it didn’t exactly enter my mind that it was graffiti. In my mind, I was an artist, not a vandal.

A couple of nights later, the boy next door, my sister and I met late at night. I had my box of oil paints and some spray paint and a series of large stencils I had cut. The boy next door had some permanent markers. We set out. Using the stencils and the spray paint, I painted a big image of a prowling panther. I looked over my shoulder and on the opposite wall the boy next door was hard at work. He wouldn’t let me see, but my sister went over and held the flashlight for him. After my panther was completed, I took out my oils. I painted a unicorn in a swirl of colors.

A figure appeared along the path. My sister turned off the flashlight and we blended into some nearby bushes.

“Hey, guys. Are you there?” My mother’s voice was unmistakable. “It was getting cold, so I brought you all some sweaters.”

Finally, I was able to see the boy’s work. He had drawn on the wall a large comic strip. It satirized some popular t.v. shows, then veered off into some sort of barely comprehensible delirium. “That boy next door has quite the imagination,” my mother would say later.

A year or two later, when they repainted the tunnel, they would carefully paint around my unicorn.

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I know where I need to go, but I’m not sure how to get there, so I’m going to sit down with a glass of wine and try to set the stage for some complicated social problems that would occur in just a few short months.

If you had asked me back when I was fourteen if I liked music, I may very well have said, “No.” I can vaguely remember liking music as a child and I would learn to like it again in college, but my high school years were something of a musical wasteland. Furthermore, music wasn’t about music for my peers. It was a complicated declaration of social alignments and identification. We had entered the years of “Disco Sucks.”

Like a lot of middle-aged people, I’ve become a little out of touch with the current trends in music and totally out of touch with any social scenes that are attached to them. Still, when I glance around me, I don’t see anything that is accompanied by the vitriol that accompanied the rise and fall of disco. Our white ethnic, lower-middle-class town was the territory of “rock.” Not rock-n-roll, and most certainly not r-n-b. Rock, white boy music in active denial of its origins. A beat that was even vaguely danceable was banned. Despite the girl I’d met over the summer, punk was something happening in another country and I wouldn’t see hide nor hair of it again for another couple of years. It’s only in retrospect that I can look back and see how narrow my exposure to popular music was. Journey, Boston, Rush, Foreigner, Kansas. These bands still leave me cold today. Yes, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull. Musical choices were highly limited. I liked my father’s old swing records more.

This particular teenage subculture went with a style, and I have to say it was far more gender neutral that it is easy to imagine in our current climate of exaggerated gender differentiation in fashion. A pair of jeans, a waffle weave “thermal shirt” with an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt over it, a pair of sneakers or work boots. It was virtually a uniform.

My new friend S had friends of her own, three girls who dressed in exactly this manner. It’s tempting to refer to them as tough girls, but how tough can you be at thirteen? Two of them had boyfriends who lived in the next town over. The boys would ride over on their bicycles, we’d sit around M’s living room and play records and just “hang out.”

One day, shortly after the boys had gone, M looked out the window after them. “Okay, they’re gone. Let’s go to my room.” In M’s bedroom, we stood around while she bent down and reached under the bed. She pulled out Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall like it was a secret vice. And here I was worried that it was going to be marijuana.

S’s secret vice was Bruce Springsteen. Bruce occupied a neutral zone in the battle between pop music and hard rock. He was most certainly a working class white kid from New Jersey, and that was a plus. However, he wasn’t hard rock. Somehow, he was regarded as just a bit lowbrow compared to the overblown art rock that held the most respect among the teenagers in our town. My sister was another devotee of the Boss and we had in our basement all the records he had recorded up until that time. S and I would go down to the basement. Her favorite was Greetings from Asbury Park. She’d sing along and dance around, acting out the stories. I can still see her now, miming flipping her collar up as she sang, “I could walk like Brando right into the sun,” then she’d take a step forward jutting out her bony preadolescent hip. “And dance just like a Casanova.” We were on opposite sides of that divide. If I had a body that looked like a young woman’s, S still looked like a child. She bemoaned many times that she hadn’t yet started to menstruate. “Really, don’t be in a hurry,” I’d tell her. “It’s kind of a drag, if you want to know.”

S’s parents were immigrants from China and by far the most strict. They liked me. I got good grades and if S said she was with me, they would let her stay out longer than they would if she was with anyone else. My parents were teachers and telling her own parents that mine said it was okay worked like magic to get approval for almost any outing. However, S’s parents didn’t approve of the other girls quite as much and more and more I found myself hanging out with M, SY, P and those boys from the next town over.

The kitchen was softly illuminated by the indirect sunlight which filtered through the tall trees in the shady backyard. I had never been in this particular kitchen before, yet it was familiar. The boy lived not far from me. The town had been built in stages, mainly of by tracks of speculative developments. Although the town claimed Dutch origins from the seventeenth century, few buildings in the town predated nineteen-twenty. In large plots, the houses had been built according to a narrow variety of floor plans. Since the boy and I lived in the same neighborhood, I was familiar with the layout of his house. It was not the same as ours, but it was the same as the homes of many of my friends since nursery school.

A stream on a snowy day.His family had moved to the town a couple of years ago, and somehow, despite having gone to elementary school together, I did not know him well. He was a quiet boy who did not stand out and I had little opinion of him one way or another, but he had asked if I would come over to his place after school. Although I was far from friendless, I was not so overburdened by popularity that an overture of friendship would be anything other than very welcome. Not knowing what prompted this invitation, I accepted as a matter of course. After all, this was not an odd thing. We were a little too old for someone to use the word “play,” but going to someone else’s house after school and playing cards or tossing a ball was a common way to pass the afternoon.

The walk from the junior high school was long and after a while his silence seemed odd. He was, as I mentioned, a quiet boy, but he was not friendless either and there had never been an odd quality to his silence, but that afternoon I took note of it. Although I can be quiet and timid in a crowd, in a one on one situation I’m quite chatty, however my attempts at conversation petered out after a sentence or two. Eventually, it was more comfortable to just walk in silence.

When we got back to his place, we entered through the back door directly into the kitchen. The kitchens in our neighborhood were not large. The small wooden table was set against a wall. He asked if I would like something to drink and then poured us two glasses of milk. We were young enough yet that milk was still the most common thing to drink. He sat in one chair and I sat in the other, facing him. More silence. At first I wondered why he asked me to his house if he didn’t want to talk and he didn’t want to do anything. Once we were seated, he seemed supremely contented to simply look at me. It would have unnerved me if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was so calm. It began to dawn on me that this was all he had wanted. He didn’t want to play cards, or draw, or show me a newly acquired pet, or any of the other things for which children typically wanted the company of other children. Rapidly, we were becoming something other than children. Six months earlier or six months later this scene could not have taken place. It occurred to me that he wanted me there because I was female, and I had the gratifying realization that he probably thought I was cute.

His calmness and sense of satisfaction evidently came from the fact that he had taken a risk when he asked me to spend the afternoon with him and I had said yes.

Over the course of the next few months, I would observe that other boys would begin to pay attention to me in ways that they hadn’t previously.

Psychadelic VolvoIt was evening. We were three. It couldn’t have been that late because we were young enough that our parents wouldn’t have allowed us to stay out too long. However, one of the three of us was my sister and the other was her closest friend. Since Sis was nearly two years older and one year ahead in school and we were together, our parents might have allowed us out for an hour or so later than usual. In any case, it was dark.

We were walking along one of the main roads in town. There wasn’t one big shopping street in town. Instead, there were three or four small areas and a couple of main roads that ran through the town connecting it to the neighboring towns. The area we were near was an intersection with shops going a block in each direction and no further. There was the usual. A post office. A gas station. Drug store, bank, liquor store, super market, candy store, ice cream parlor, coffee shop and a Chinese restaurant. This was long before cheap Chinese restaurants on every corner and the restaurant was a fancy place that served very, very Americanized food. We were in a very tame and very familiar place, perhaps five minutes’ walk from our house. My sister’s friend lived on the next block.

I can still remember exactly where we were but I can’t remember why we were there. The strip of stores on that particular block was set back from the street with a small parking lot in between. There was a strip of sidewalk between the parking lot and the road. We must have been going from point A to point B because there was no other reason to be on that strip of sidewalk. My sister had a friend who lived around the corner. Perhaps we had been there. Perhaps we had run an errand for our parents. We were probably heading home.

My sister’s friend was carrying a suede purse, a clutch bag with a bamboo closure that had become a source of irritation for my sister who had bought the very same purse the week before. So had I, but in a different color and at my sister’s suggestion. It was my first purse, but I wasn’t carrying it that night. We were walking on the right hand side of the road, in the direction of traffic. A car came by. Pale blue, I think, although perhaps it was white. It was large American car probably from the early seventies, the kind teenagers get as hand-me-downs from older relatives. The car slowed so that it was going at the same speed as we were. A boy, a teenager himself but much older than we were, leaned out the window.

“Hey girls, where you going?”

My sister’s friend said under her breath. “Ignore them and they’ll go away.”

“Do you want to come for a ride?”

She clutched her clutch more tightly and whispered, “Ignore them.”

Another car came from behind and the boys were forced to resume a normal speed and drive away. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

A minute later, the car came from behind us again. They must have gone around the block. It wasn’t a large block. It would only have taken a minute.

They said something and we ignored them. They said something again and we ignored them some more. It was starting to get a little scary. Finally, one of them said, “Hey, do you want to suck my dick?”

My sister, my bossy, popular older sister, wheeled around. She put her hand on her hip, tossed back her hair and stuck out her chin. “Yeah, well, lick my clit!”

Just like that, the car took off as fast as it could.

Lesson learned: When boys try to scare you with crude words, show them that you’re not scared. Nine times out of ten, it works. The tenth time, you’re in trouble, but you would probably have been in trouble anyway.

Several elementary schools fed into our junior high, and that is where the sifting and sorting began. For our main academic classes, I found myself grouped with the same students. These were the students who, two years later in high school, would be funneled into the college preparatory classes. Another new development for us was the introduction of choice into our eduction. We had “electives” and we were granted the grand choice of deciding between French or Spanish.

An oversized chess set built from found metal objects on a painted cement floor in an empty warehouse building at the American Visionary Arts Museum.There were pros and cons to each choice, all relating to my twelve-year-old self’s petty social life. My two closest friends were set on Spanish. However, my older sister had taken Spanish and I wanted to distinguish myself from her and cease the constant comparisons between us that always fell unfavorably on me. “Your sister has such a good disposition. Why are you so moody?” was a refrain I heard from every elementary school teacher. I wasn’t a particularly troublesome child, nor was I especially unpopular. I was a touch shy, but not pathologically so. Yet, adults who had met my energetic, popular, cheerful older sister first, could never control the urge to tell me what a disappointment I was. I adored my older sister who was, in fact, cheerful, easygoing, popular and all that, yet I felt like something of a misshapen dwarf living in her shadow. Even my mother, I felt, adopted me with the expectation of getting another happy, bouncy bundle. Instead, she got a quiet, pensive, brooding, inquisitive child who could not be trusted with a screwdriver because I was exceedingly curious about the insides of things. I wasn’t troublesome, just different.

So taking French class instead of Spanish was my first opportunity to differentiate myself from my sister and that weighed at least as heavily as any desire to keep company with my two closest friends. However there was a third factor about which I told no one at the time. For now, I will just call him J-.

People are always referring to “hormones” as a veiled reference to sexual desire. Yet my body was evidence that those “hormones” had been running through my body in adult proportions for several years. Yet when I think back on my thoughts in fifth and sixth grade, I can’t find much evidence that I had any interest in sex. It wasn’t until seventh grade, when boys were starting to express an interest in me and other girls were starting to giggle about boys that I had any relevant thoughts that I can recall.

So, I not only chose French, but I succeeded in spending the next year seated next to J-. French class had wide tables that seated two people at each and J- and I shared one in the first row near the window. He made me feel slightly agitated in a way I didn’t quite understand. I want to say that I was too nervous to look at his face, but nervous isn’t quite the right word. He had always been nice to me and he never made fun of other students, which was common behavior at that age. There was nothing I feared from looking at him. However, I can recall wanting to look at him yet not doing so because I didn’t want him to ask me why. It was a question I couldn’t have answered.

What I remember most clearly was the sight of his forearms resting on the desk. They were noticeably different from those of other boys. His arms were covered with a light layer of dark hairs and they had a shape formed by his developing muscles. He was an athletic boy, a competitive wrestler who, in later years, would place second in a state competition. The shape of his veins were visible under the skin, and when he grasped his pen or turned a page, I was hypnotized by the movement of the muscles under the surface. His hands looked strong in a way other boys’ didn’t.

We sat shoulder to shoulder, close enough that I could detect a faint scent. I’m not talking about the foul body odor that comes from being unclean. J- was, as far as I could tell, as tidy as any of the boys with his person. It was a distinct sent, one that in later years I would come to associate with men, and it hit me between the eyes. It was a heady experience, almost like being a little drunk or a little high, although I wasn’t yet familiar with either of those states.

I had no idea what I wanted from him, but I wanted something.

Wanting him to notice me and like me, with all the grace a twelve-year-old girl can muster, when the teacher would return a test to us, I’d punch him in the arm and say, “What did you get!” He’d show me his paper and, as often as not, I’d slap mine down on top and say, “Beat you!” I thought my good grades would cause him to admire me and he would regard me as highly as I regarded him. He was a good student, and it took quite an effort to beat him on tests.

I never did learn what he thought of me. Other boys would grab my attention soon enough, but I would never forget the feeling I got sitting close to him. Predatory.