image of a lonely pre-teen girl

The Summer Before Eighth Grade


            I’m at Inwood Pool on Jefferson Street, west of the fast food restaurants—Dog ‘n Suds, Franksville, Kentucky Fried Chicken—and used car franchises (“Bill Jacobs wants YOU to buy a Chevy!”) that line my hometown’s main drag. It’s the summer of 1971. I am twelve years old, wearing my first two-piece bathing suit. It’s blue and white, with fake plastic zippers on the top and bottom. My body is hard and taut-bellied and tanned. I take no pride in it. But I like my swimsuit, from which my belly button peeks out, because it has padding on top and makes me look slightly less flat-chested than I am.
            It’s nearing nine p.m., which is closing time, but the pool is still crowded. A group of teenaged girls, confident and flirtatious in their neon-colored bikinis, are laughing by its edge, combing their long hair, made blonder by Sun-In. Boys my age are roughhousing by the diving boards. I’m not a good swimmer, but I can do what I call the breaststroke, paddling my legs and arms through the water like a frog. Sometimes I flip over on my back and meet a sky just beginning to deepen to lavender. Tall lights guarding the pool float like white jewels at the edge of my vision. I dive underneath, where even Inwood’s water, so full of chlorine your throat aches from it, holds silence and mystery. I love to resurface then, pop up from that netherworld of stillness and rippling shapes into splashing and happy screams. I like being able to dip at will into one world, then the other.
            I do my frog paddle across the pool one last time, gracefully as a mermaid, I am thinking, when it happens. Legs wide apart, I feel a hand grab my crotch, shove underneath my suit, and pinch me hard there, where no one has ever touched me. I snap my legs shut, whirl around. No one. Or, rather, everyone. I make it to the side of the pool and clutch the ladder, looking at all the faces, all the bodies, around me in the water. He’s watching me. He’s watching me right now, probably with his friends, and I’ll never know who he is. I want to cry, but I act like nothing happened. I climb out of the pool, feeling the film of his smirk on my skin. He mustn’t know he’s humiliated me. I join the two sisters I came with and start goofing around loudly, just in case he’s still watching. I want what happened to me, the shock of it, every cell of my body crackling into an unscreamed No! when those fingers pushed their way into that private part between my legs, to melt away like the lavender melting into this soft black summer sky. I don’t tell anyone what happened.
            This is the summer I learn from my best friend, Patti, about oral sex. Patti gets most of her sexual information from Karen Kirsten and TC McShane, girls two years older than us who live on Patti’s block on Audrey Street. TC has light orange hair and pale blue eyes, as if they were washed too many times. Patti thinks she is pretty, a genuine strawberry blond, but I think TC looks a little spooky. Karen has long greasy hair and a languorous manner around boys. She isn’t popular, she isn’t even especially pretty, but she has her own lazy kind of confidence. Karen taught Patti an exercise that’s supposed to make your breasts (or boobs, as Karen puts it, a word I can never bring myself to use) bigger. Arms shoulder high, elbows bent, you repeatedly thrust your elbows back towards your spine as you recite: We must! We must! We must develop our bust! The bigger the better, the tighter the sweater, the boys depend on us! Sometimes, Patti and I do this exercise together, giggling hysterically.
            It’s Karen who tells Patti about a book entitled The Perfect O.  She makes Patti guess again and again what the perfect O is.  Finally, Karen tells her.  And Patti tells me one Saturday night, when I am sleeping over at her house, as I often do.  We’re in her bedroom, where every available space is covered with pictures Patti’s clipped from cards and magazines.  There are puppies, kittens, angels, flowers, little girls whose sweet, chalky faces grace the packages of a certain brand of toilet paper, and four pictures that Patti sent away for of the same thatched cottage in summer, fall, winter and spring. 
            We’re changing into our nightgowns when my best friend discloses her new knowledge. “They put their thing in your mouth. It feels so good for them, it’s called the perfect oh. And the girl’s mouth is round, like an O. So that’s another reason it’s called that.” I can’t believe it. I can’t believe any girl would do such a thing. I wish Patti, who seems more amused than disturbed, hadn’t told me.
            Actually, I have only a vague idea of what a boy’s “thing” is. I have no brothers, only five older sisters. The few times I’ve ever played with boys were when I was younger, when neighborhood kids got together to play Red Rover or frozen tag in the Quigleys’ big yard next door to my house. I’m too old for that now. I have never seen a boy naked. I know they have to raise the toilet seat when they pee, but I’m not exactly sure why. I would die before asking anyone. The book that my mother left in my room for me one day is not very helpful about answering such questions. It is a Catholic book with tepidly drawn illustrations. I learn that masturbating, which is described quaintly as “pleasuring oneself,” will not make me go blind, but that it is a selfish act, and wrong. I learn that I may soon begin menstruating. There are passages about eggs and sperm that bore me. I want to know what’s between a boy’s legs. No, I don’t. Whatever it is, is alien and scary. I don’t want to know.
            Patti and I have invented a game we call Chinese Torture. This game is different from the many others we have come up with involving ping pong balls, or acrobats, even an updated Barbie board game we made ourselves. We play Chinese Torture on Saturday night, when I sleep over at her house. If it’s my turn, I lie on the bed, while Patti runs her fingers as lightly as possible all over my body. We never touch parts that are covered by our nighties, only what’s exposed. To succumb to a touch that delicate, the shadow of a tickle all over my skin, is crazy-making, but also enjoyable. We never go further than that. I love Patti, but I love her as a friend. Her body does not interest me. Yet I know something’s wrong about our game. It has to do with the crazy-making part, how that makes the touch of my best friend more enjoyable. It’s dirty, like the way I sometimes feel when I see pictures of scantily clad women on album covers and in magazines. My older sister, Myra, has the sheet music to “You Only Live Twice.” The picture on the cover shows James Bond sitting in a pool surrounded by seven or eight girls posed seductively in tiny bikinis. It attracts me, that picture; I want to be one of those girls just barely dressed, kneeling by James Bond. No, I don’t, I don’t I don’t. I want to be ten years old, playing frozen tag in the Quigleys’ yard. That’s what I want.
            Sex has two sides to it, and adults only acknowledge the good side, the surface. That Catholic sex manual, for example, for all its lame illustrations, treats sex like a holy mystery. So does my mother. She takes me aside one day after I have blurted out something I didn’t mean to, and explains to me gently but gravely that sex is a beautiful act that should only take place between two people who are married and love each other. She dodges any specifics about the act itself, but she assures me of its beauty. What I learn from my friends about sex doesn’t sound beautiful at all. I think of an afternoon last spring when I am walking home from school with Julie Bauer. Julie tells me about a party where St. Raymond girls (we are St. Patrick girls) let eighth grade members of their basketball team feel them up. “Then, they let them stick their hands down their pants. What sluts! The boys are just using them.” Julie is fond of talking about girls who are just being used.
            There’s that part of sex, the stuff that really happens; there’s the Holy Mystery part that I don’t get at all; and there’s sex in books. Katherine, by Anya Seton, is currently my favorite book, and my favorite part of it is when John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, kisses Katherine for the first time: Fire shot through her, and as she gasped, her lips opened under his. In that instant she felt the hardness of his body under the velvet surcote and melting sweetness flowed through her bones, depriving her of strength. Later, the duke carries Katherine away on his stallion to a castle where they make love in a tower room fragrant with reeds strewn on the stone floor. That’s how it should be, I say to myself. Such descriptions turn my insides to water, but not in a dirty way. Not like the James Bond sheet music picture. I like that phrase, “the hardness of his body under the velvet surcote.” I’d like to feel a boy’s body hard against mine.
            One day this summer, not long after what happened to me at Inwood, I’m chased by Patti’s older brother and two of his friends. One of them is Toly Sandretto, tall, lanky, and very cute. It starts out as a game in a wooded lot not far from Patti’s house, something involving dares. Patti and I run away together, but we get separated. I end up cornered on the top steps of an old house where no one lives, the three of them, Mike and Toly and Andy, at the bottom of the porch, teasing and lunging for me. Without warning, the universe tilts. They are bigger than me, these three boys. I see nothing but taunting in their faces, which are blurring together. When Toly tries to grab me, I kick out instinctively. I don’t make contact, but Toly backs away, startled. “Damn! What’d you do that for?” When I see that he’s genuinely alarmed, for his sake, or my sake, or both, the neighborhood tilts back, rights itself. It’s just them. But my whole body is shaking.
            I am deeply ashamed of my thoughts. If my mother, whom I love more than anyone in the world, knew I had them, I’m sure she would be stunned and sorrowful. I feel more and more as if there are two sides to me: the bright surface and the netherworld. The brightness is what my teachers and family and friends see. The netherworld is full of murky imaginings and dirty pictures that I must never, never disclose to anyone, not even the priest at Confession. I would rather die with sin on my soul than have to describe these things. I pray to God the Father, I pray to Jesus, but it is Mary I feel closest to. Sometimes I go into St. Patrick’s Church and kneel at the railing at the left of the altar where there is a statue of her, pure and white and tranquil. Not like me. I start checking things over and over before bedtime: whether the dresser drawers are shut just so, whether my pants are folded correctly. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I get up and go downstairs to make sure all of the kitchen cabinet drawers are shut. Then, even after I have checked, I get out of bed again to make really sure. I’m tired, but I do it.
            I read a lot this summer. I read The Diary of Ann Frank, finishing it one afternoon when I’m by myself in the living room. I feel sick inside. I don’t understand why God didn’t end the world before the Holocaust happened. I pray hard to the Holy Spirit, that mysterious part of the Trinity that inspires no love in me, but supposedly gives courage to people. I pray that if tested, I’d be brave enough to hide Jews in my house. I don’t think I would be that brave, but I want to be, fiercely.
            Another book I read is The Bell Jar, a paperback one of my sisters bought for a college literature class. Many of these college books are boring, like The Human Ape or Tess of the d’Urbervilles. But The Bell Jar is interesting and funny. Then, it turns dark. Esther talks about how she’s never sure when the bell jar’s going to come down on her again, how she has no control over it. I know exactly what she means. Sometimes pictures come into my head, and I can’t get them out. Sometimes a kind of hopelessness mixed with dread comes over me without warning. Then, it’s like being under Esther’s bell jar, unable to escape. It might last for an hour, or it might last for two days. No one else knows about this. All they see is my bright side, my good side. I don’t know how to reconcile my surface with what’s underneath. I contain two worlds, but it’s not like the pool at Inwood where it’s fun to dip from one into the other. I want to stay on the surface of myself, be the brightness everyone sees, but I can’t, I keep slipping into the darker part.
            Patti and I practice our cartwheels and front handsprings almost every day. We make up cheers. Cheerleading tryouts are the first week of school, and we want badly to make the eighth grade team. We are not popular, but maybe we would move into that elect circle if we were cheerleaders. My mother says nothing, but I know she is disappointed that this means so much to me. This is frustrating; why can’t my mother be like other mothers who want their daughters to be popular? Yet a small, still part of me doesn’t want to be a cheerleader at all. It knows what makes me happiest is being outside, and reading, and drawing. It knows that even though I talk with Patti about my crush on brown-eyed Mark Hayes (Patti has a crush on blue-eyed John Kinsler) I don’t really want anything to do with Mark physically. It feels, that part of me, like a small, true flame deep in my core, truer than the bad thoughts that come to me, steadier than the joyless moods that descend on me.
            I lie in bed one night and think about this. It is an immense relief to suspect that maybe the essence of me is not bad, but good. I will be thirteen in two weeks: a teenager. I wonder if I will feel different then. Confirmation didn’t make me feel any different, even though the nuns and priests said it would. First Communion, so far in the distant past I can barely remember my little prayer book with the raised golden cross, didn’t, either. But maybe becoming a teenager really does change you. Maybe this time, I will feel different.


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