November 14, 2011
When I was seven I asked Merrit Douglas to pee on me. Merrit was the only black kid at our school and I adored him so much that when I stared at him my eyes shivered. He was the only kid I ever wanted to play with or talk to or sit by. He smelled like grass and fresh rain. His mom had to have used fabric softener. He wore thick black rimmed glasses and a mini-fro, and on the day we had school pictures taken, he wore a short sleeved white pressed button down shirt and a tie. A tie.
The day I asked Merrit to pee on me we were behind a cement tunnel at the end of the soccer field.
He looked at me kind of stupefied and then went, “How?”
And I went, “Here, I’ll be down on the ground, and I’ll lift my shirt up, and you pee on my belly. See my belly button?”
He looked at me for a long minute. I looked right back at him. Then he went, “OK.”
He unzipped his pants, and I got down on the ground on my back. I lifted my shirt up so he could see where to aim. His thing was very tiny and totally mesmerizing—it was black and pink. I was riveted.
Seven-year-olds don’t aim pee very well.
It got all over me.
I started laughing pretty hard, and I said,“You peed all over me! Dweeb! I didn’t say to pee all over me! I said on my stomach! Gyawd!”
And he was laughing too, and he went, “I tried, but my weenie’s just out of control!”
We laughed so hard we peed some more I bet…but I can’t be sure…Merrit’s father hit him in the mouth before he turned eight. He only came to school sporadically after that. In solidarity I’d roam the recess fields alone, wandering, wanting, wanting.
I liked Merrit more than I had words for. I wanted to show him how much kid desire I had but I didn’t know how. I wanted to tell him something that twisted my throat and gut—it wasn’t that I liked him. I wanted to tell him I wanted to be him. At home I’d steal a white button down shirt of my father’s and put it on and close my eyes and hold my breath.
But I wasn’t Merrit Douglas. I wasn’t black, I didn’t wear glasses, my father didn’t hit me in the mouth, and I wasn’t a boy. At that age all I was was a swimmer. I had already won enough awards for competitive swimming to fill a room. So I gave Merrit a piece of me. I gave him one of my swimming medals.
Thank you, he said with a slight lisp from his tongue shooting through where his two front teeth had been knocked from his mouth, pinning the medal to his ski parka. Later, we sat in the cement tunnel in silence.
The issue was I wanted to be a boy. And not any boy. This boy. The issue was I was me.
When I was ten Curtis Madding picked a fight with me. Curtis Madding had a crush on me, and he used to follow me around like a dog. By the time I was ten, I pretty much looked like a boy. I was “nationally ranked” as a swimmer in the 10 and under category. I had a boy butt—muscled up—and broad boy shoulders. And I had the shortest, whitest hair of any girl—any human—in our school. None of the boys would have anything to do with me except to tease me about looking like a boy, and most of the girls shunned me for not looking girl headed enough. How Curtis Madding got a crush on me I don’t know, it still puzzles me. But he did.
I couldn’t stand Curtis. He completely grossed me out. He ate boogers openly, he smelled like hot dogs, his lunch from home was always suspicious, and his voice—his voice sounded like a middle-aged man’s—a middle-aged man who smoked too much and drank whiskey. It was so strange to hear that voice coming out of a ten-year-old. It was like if George Burn’s voice came out of a boy’s mouth. Other kids didn’t like him either. You can imagine. Merciless.
Funny thing though. Even though I kind of hated him, deeper down I really really wanted to be around him. I swear. He had the pull of a magnet, and magnets fascinated me. I’d figure out ways to be near whatever weird thing he was doing. I’d pretend not to look at him or feel anything. It was powerful being near his magnet though. I silently admired the way he wasn’t like anyone else. Like at all. I regarded with great interest and pleasure the way he stood up for himself before, during, and after ridicule or pummelings. I even sort of liked his matted messy hair. It was long. Like really long. Like no other boys at our school long. Like, “Are you a girl?” Kind of the way they said, “Are you a boy?” to me.
And his eyes. Sometimes they went wild in a way that made me want to run really fast or hold my breath.
The day he picked the fight with me I way deserved it. Curtis had been hanging creepily in his Curtis way across the top of the monkey bars—monkey bars in the shape of an arc—just laying there on his back kind of stretched toward the sky, all through recess, ignoring everyone. As I recall, he pretty much smelled like peanut butter and hot dogs that day. His eyes were closed and his hands were folded across his chest almost like he was meditating. A little half smile too. At first everyone taunted him ruthlessly like the pack of criminals kids are, but then everyone got bored and left him there. Everyone except for me.
His hair was hanging down from the bars. I stared at it intensely. Then I walked over and stood under him and tied some of his hair in a knot around one of the bars. He never moved. I don’t know why I did that. I couldn’t not.
Teachers had to go out there and cut him loose.
The next day, right out in the open of recess, he walked up to me and told me when and where he was going to fight me, and everyone stood around us in a circle, because children, well, you know all they wait for all day is blood sport.
I’d like to say it was an even fight, that we came out of it pals or something. Wouldn’t that be cool? Or maybe you wish I’d say another boy stepped in and clocked him for wanting to fight a girl. But no boy stepped in. They just posse’d up around us. And the girls huddled off to the side all pink and soft and smelling vaguely of milk, going you guys, you guys, geeeeeeeeroooooooooose. Geeeroosemeouttothemax.
It was fall I know because we all had those sad little lightweight windbreakers that lead up to the Michelin Man parkas of winter. Curtis’ windbreaker was orange of course. The stupidest color ever. Mine was purple. Curtis looked lean—like maybe he hadn’t eaten in a few days. Or like he’d only eaten peanut butter and hot dogs. I, on the other hand, had the ten-year-old body of an athlete. Like I told you. So when he took a step toward me I clenched my little girl fist and gritted my little girl teeth and I hit Curtis Madding in the mouth as hard as I could until a couple of those ten year old kid teeth went sailing. He fell down on the ground, and a few kids kicked him, and then of course Mr. Lewis came and Mrs. Cole and the whole kid arrest system kicked in.
It was all Curtis Madding’s fault. He got suspended. I was so jealous I bit my lip thinking about him.
The next year he showed up to my birthday party at my house uninvited. He sat down on the curb in front of our yard and removed all the curb moss with a garden tool. My dad saw him out there toiling away and finally invited him onto the back porch where the party was. We glared at each other. Then he jumped off the second story back porch to the ground, and we all ran down to him, and he was covered in blood – but no, it wasn’t blood, he’d smeared the ketchup meant for hot dogs all over his face and hands. When we stood around him in a circle, he was laughing his ass off. Before I could stop myself I smiled.
It was probably the coolest kid thing I’d ever seen in my life. I wanted it. I wanted to be just like him. But when I jumped off the back porch the next night in my undies and t-shirt I landed on my wrist and the little snap woke my parents up. “What kind of an idiot does that?” my father said about my broken wrist. I may have been an idiot, but Curtis Madding wasn’t. Curtis Madding Curtis Madding Curtis Madding. All night in my dreams.
Curtis Madding’s mom killed herself the next summer and his dad moved him away from all my dreams.
But look, I’m lying to you. I mean I’m not, about Merrit Douglas, about Curtis Madding, about boys, about me…but it itches to tell you.
It’s just that it’s weird how when we go to tell the stories of our lives, when we reach back into what we lovingly refer to as “memory,” we always make compelling characters of ourselves. We always create a frame for the story—usually a frame that makes us feel better about the chaos of a past. Nothing really happens in narrative form, now does it? Like just now I made myself sound like a little rebel Lidia. A shrunken little bad ass Lidia taking risks and making her moves. It may be true, what I said happened to my midget self, but it’s a lie too. I wasn’t a rebel as a kid. In fact I was already traumatized and terrified of pretty much everything by the time I was ten. My father didn’t hit me in the mouth. But he did father me wrongly, enough so that my insides petrified.
And I was—what’s the phrase? Painfully shy? I wasn’t just painfully shy. Tortuously shy would be more accurate. Like just this side of autistic, with my little bouts of rocking and whimpering if any adult spoke to me, with my stork-like stance at the sign of danger—hold one foot up with one hand, tuck the other arm at the elbow behind your head. Peeing my pants at school in every grade, especially sixth grade, yes you heard me right, when boys are in the midst of their becoming and girls were turning into something I could not comprehend without shaking and sweating and whimpering.
But when we retell ourselves, we make changes. Or get it wrong. Or lie. It’s not that we mean to necessarily, though sometimes we mean to. It’s that the second you try to retrieve something in your mind from the past, you are already making shit up. Radically.
I was a bold strong swimmer kid. Fighting with boys. Lighting shoes on fire. Winning medals. Ready for anything. Unstoppable.
But then, like now, I was hiding something.
Every man I have ever loved was one I wanted to be. Excrutiatingly. Can we call that love, too?
If you see me at a gathering now, or a party—anything public, there is a boozy flirty bravado about me. I move around a room with a glass in my hand and flushed cheeks and big boobs laughing and joking and kissing people inappropriately. I’m being a girl as good as I can. I studied their behaviors. Especially my mother’s. And Liz Taylor’s. But then, like now, the social bravado shtick is just a cover story.
Underneath I am terrified of people judging me. Underneath I have a chip on my shoulder bigger than a human head, like a second head, wobbling around in danger of knocking my real head off. Underneath I feel small, and mightily insecure, and impotent, like all the time. Like a fraud. Scared to death that I’m unlovable and a failure and endlessly unable to become the winner my father demanded.
My womany cover story weaves a narrative over what’s underneath. Underneath I feel… Well, there’s no other way to say this. Underneath I feel
Like a man. Exactly like a man who is not what we tell him he should be every day of his life. Don’t cry. Win the fight. Be strong. Successful. On top.
I kept it, you know.
Curtis Madding’s hair. I have it still. It doesn’t smell like hot dogs. It smells like the wonder that is a boy.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of The Chronology of Water, a memoir from Hawthorne Books, as well as three books of short stories, Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel. She teaches in Oregon with the filmmaker/writer Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son Miles, where she just finished a novel based on Freud and Dora…but mostly Dora. She is the Editrix of chiasmus press.