I wasn’t the sort of kid who told the other children where babies came from. Those messengers were most often the kind of pale, sneering boys who loitered in the back of the second grade classroom with a crusty ring of snot dried around their nostrils. These were the boys who licked their lips till they chapped, and lifted the lids of their desks when the teacher wasn’t looking just long enough for you to glimpse their father’s heisted Perfect 10 magazine.
As a child I was a baseball player, a tree-climber, the last blue-lipped kid to crawl out of the pond at dusk. It was not that I did not also covet the frilly, mesmeric trappings of girlishness; I doggedly wore down my mother’s opposition to Barbie dolls and their cripplingly tiny feet, and she let me keep the ones gifted by less enlightened relations. I was not one of those tomboys who didn’t realize she was a girl until she got her first period, or noticed that her bathing suit was different from her brother’s. There was simply never any mistaking myself for the kind of girl for whom ruffled socks and coddling was appropriate. I was strong and brown and fell down a lot, not because I was frail; but because I moved through life with a force not always containable, a haphazard need to get to someplace just beyond where I was. Nicknamed “Crash” by my parents, by the time I was ten I was falling down the stairs that led to my attic bedroom on a daily basis, and was perpetually pocked with bruises from banging into the edge of cabinets, doorways, railings, tables, and bookcases. I once suffered a lump on my forehead that lasted for days after walking into a light-switch.
My kindergarten class photo features me in the front row. A gift from my grandmother (a woman with native expertise in the art of all things feminine), I am wearing a pink sweater-skirt with rows of yellow ducks and a matching top. My hair is long and shiny with pink barrettes, and the smile on my face belies the pleasure I remember feeling at my girliness that day. I would have gotten away with it, at least in retrospect, had I not been in the front row. The image is perfect, until you travel below the hem of my skirt, where my sturdy legs are encrusted with fresh scabs, and anchored by a pair of dilapidated sneakers. It was not often that I attempted this disguise, and the feeling was never lost that it was a futile task to obscure my unkempt underneath.
It wasn’t the implication of sex that made me nervous in dresses. My parents sat me down the first time I asked, around the age of four or five, and told me exactly where babies came from. They drew pictures and gave proper names. There was no element of shock or shame in this information; it simply was, exciting in the way of moths in chrysalis, whose cottony sacks clung to the trees in our yard. In my house we peed with the bathroom door open, and I knew what everyone in my family looked like naked. Bodies were curious, mesmerizing, but the only one I ever remember embarrassing me was my own.
Jessie was my first best friend. When I was five, my family moved to Cape Cod to be closer to the maritime base where my father, a sea captain, shipped out from. We lived on a dirt road with a farm at the end, a stone’s throw from Otis Air Force Base, so that the apocalyptic rumble and whoosh of jets flying overhead was a common disruption. Chatting in backyards, we would pause and stare into each other’s faces for whole minutes while engine thunder filled the air, waiting to pick up our words like a dropped laundry line. Jessie’s family lived a few houses down. Blond and impish, she and her brother Ben were the same ages as my younger brother and me. Our friendships flourished accordingly. Her parents were a concrete foundation layer and a housewife, and I don’t believe I ever saw either of them without a sweating glass of orange juice in their hand.
“They’re called screwdrivers,” my parents informed me. “It’s not just orange juice in their glasses, and that’s why you come home before dark.”
“You are not there,” I pointed out. “You don’t see. I know what orange juice looks like.”
I thought that I knew what a lot of things were like. Bed sheets were worn soft and flannel, toiletries came in bulk gallon bottles from the health food co-op and were under the sink, and nicknames were Crash, Boo, and sometimes Punkin. I had the confidence we do during the period of childhood grace when everything we know is taken for granted as the way of everything in the world, before we have some basis for comparison, and what we have becomes forever not good enough. I had never seen cable television, or tasted snack foods with refined sugar until I went to Jessie’s house. While I gulped in awe and desire, my parents exchanged looks that I now recognize as some combination of pity and dismay. They also shared the wordless phew of two working-class kids from Jersey who grew into an educated, white-collar liberalism that allowed their own children to be spared the perils of meeting Daddy at the bar after school enough times to name “Lady in Red” as a favorite song, as Jessie did.
Jessie’s daddy called her Kitten (my request for the same courtesy was met with laughter), and her whole family used words like ca-ca, an all-inclusive term not only meaning shit, but any kind of nasty substance that might get stuck to you, smell bad, or induce a flinch with its given name. My family’s comparative lack of flourish (poop meant only poop, never mind its grievous onomatopoeia) struck me as both embarrassing and dull. On Christmas afternoon, when she stopped over for cookies, my brother and I touted how not only the cookies we had left with a note for Santa had been eaten, but also the carrots we’d left for the reindeer.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Santa ate all our cookies too, and he had a beer.”
Like so many loves, Jessie was the perfect combination of that which I recognized in myself, and that which I sought to possess. There was an effortlessness to her prettiness: the thrust of her little hand as it reached for things, for me, discarded worries, gum wrappers, tears; the speed of her mouth as it spoke, and her seamless inflections; her cheap clothes, and milky skin. Jessie knew how to lie, how to cry at will, and even in her sadness I saw none of the bald coarseness of my own grief.
It was I that poured hydrogen peroxide on the tooth-marked gash in her left buttock after Ben bit her in one of his tantrums, blowing as my mother did on the frothing wound while she whimpered, clutching a box of Band-Aids. It was me that told her where babies come from.
One afternoon in her bedroom, we were playing Barbies. Watching her mash the two nude, sexless bodies of a Ken and Barbie doll together in a series of frustrated clicks, I wondered aloud what Jessie’s couple was doing.
“They’re making a baby,” she replied. “They are kissing without their clothes, and then Barbie’s belly is going to get fat, and then the stork is going to come with the baby.”
“A stork?” She was clearly lost in some hideous deficit of information, so I offered my expertise on the subject, proudly enunciating the multi-syllabic vocabulary: fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, intercourse. I felt satisfied by her widened eyes, powerful in my knowing.
Later that day, as we sat in the back seat of her family’s minivan, she crawled onto the armrest between the two front seats.
“Melissa said that storks don’t bring babies, Mom. She said that babies come from intercourse.”
I sensed instantly in her mother’s silence my faux pas. Staring at the back of her frizzy head, my face grew hot, insides curling like those little shreds of fabric and plastic that I burned in the Mason jar in my closet, conducting my secret “experiments.” Though not yet tall enough to touch the floor of the van with my feet, I felt myself grow in conspicuousness, as if self-consciousness were bloating my body: a great vesicle of crass knowledge, lodged in the back seat of the van.
I knew that my error had not been one of fact. What I had mistaken is the atmosphere in which it was told me for that larger context of the world. It was an instant awakening to the fact that truth could be a crass thing to know. I did not play so often at Jessie’s after that, but I did not forget Jessie. I think of her every time I hear “Lady in Red.” I also did not forget that in this greater world, for the privilege of sweeter tastes, for prettier names, toys, and smells, one has to pay in the integrity of things whose truth defies the coy obfuscation of prettiness.