It was Sunday afternoon after my birthday party yesterday. After so many days of winter when it was mostly always cold, the air was finally really warm, and had that special energy in it. Mom said you could smell the plants coming alive, and I think she was right.
I was over at Joey’s house. We had both just played in what the older kids called a “pickup” baseball game at Allmendinger Park. That was where two of the older kids decided to be the captains, and the other kids decided that that made sense, and then the two of them took turns picking the other kids that wanted to play to be on their teams. Most of the kids were older than we were, so we got picked last. But we both liked baseball, and were pretty good at catching and throwing and hitting, so we didn’t mind being picked last as long as we could play.
Since I was eight years old now, I was finally the same age as Joey and some of my other friends who had their birthdays before mine. When you were the same age number as someone else, it was easier to feel like you were the same, and not littler.
How old you were and your grade number made it so “complicated”, that word grownups used that some kids were starting to use instead of just “hard”. It was complicated because your grade number was a different number that could make you on different teams. Like Paul and I, since I was eight like he was now, but I was in third grade and he was only in second. So at home or in the park we felt like we were on the same team, but at school it felt like we were on different teams.
It was like that with Molly too. Even though she was my best friend, and her birthday was two months before mine, I was in third grade and she was only in second, which felt strange, or weird as Paul would say. Before Molly moved and before we both went to regular school, we used to feel like we were the same, even though she was a girl and I was a boy. That felt really good being the same, like we knew what each other liked and even what each other was thinking. Now we were feeling more and more different, because we lived in different places, played in different parks, had different friends, and were in different grades. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking or liked anymore.
Molly came to my birthday party yesterday. We got to have it in Allmendinger Park because it was warm and it didn’t rain. Mom said it was good that we didn’t have my party on my actual birthday, because that was Tuesday, and it was super hot that day. Mom said it felt like “the dead of summer” even though it was “just barely spring”.
At my party, I could tell it was hard for Molly and Paul, who were in second grade, to be with all those kids at my party who were in third grade, like Herbie, Gabe, Lenny and Jake, and me too. We all talked about third grade stuff that Molly and Paul couldn’t talk about. David and his friend Hannah were there too, but they were really little kids, didn’t go to regular school yet, and weren’t worried about different ages or grades yet. At least Danny and Marybeth were there too, and they were both in fifth grade. They were the big kids, and all the rest of us in second OR third grade were little compared to them, so that made the rest of us feel more the same.
There was a bad part to that too. All us kids at the party tried to do pretending together on the monkey bars and the merry-go-round, like Captain Nemo or Civil War stuff. But Danny or Marybeth would say something silly that wasn’t part of the pretending, and then Gabe or Herbie would say silly stuff too to be like the bigger kids and then the whole pretending wouldn’t work anymore.
We did all get on the merry-go-round together, all eleven of us, and we were big enough and strong enough now to make it go around really fast and all jump on. They wanted to put me in the middle, but that felt strange without being there with Molly, since at my little kid birthday parties in the park it was always her and I in the middle together. I didn’t want to even ask to be in the middle with Molly, because I didn’t want anyone to think Molly and I were girlfriend and boyfriend. We ended up all deciding to put David and Hannah in the middle, and they both really liked that.
While we were spinning around, Marybeth made a joke about how Molly always used to fall off the merry-go-round at my old birthday parties in the park and get all scraped up and get her nice party dresses dirty. All the rest of us laughed, even David and Hannah. Danny laughed the most and asked Molly if she’d like to do it again for “old times sake”, whatever that was.
Molly liked the idea, though she said it wouldn’t be the same because she was wearing pants, because her mom didn’t make her wear dresses to parties anymore. So she hung off the side, and when we slowed down enough so we weren’t going super fast she let go and did a kind of pretend tumble in the sand, ending up flat on her back with her legs and arms spread.
All the rest of us kids still going around on the merry-go-round clapped and cheered, which all the grownups at my party at the picnic tables heard. Molly’s mom stood up, looked worried, saw Molly lying on the ground and said, “Oh my god, not again!” All us kids laughed and Molly jumped up to show her mom she was okay and said, “Just pretending mom!”
It was interesting, because I think Danny and Marybeth kind of liked each other. They weren’t best friends like Molly and I, and they weren’t like boyfriend and girlfriend, or wanting to be kissface. But they kept looking at each other, said something when the other one said something, and laughed when the other said something funny, even if it was pretty silly or even stupid. I wondered if it was that “flirting” stuff that Margie had talked about older boys and girls doing and that I had heard mom say some other grownup women did with dad at some parties they went to.
Anyway, I got lots of good presents, which was the other really neat part. Mom and dad, grandpa and grandma, and Aunt Pat got me a new bicycle. It was another red Schwinn like my old bike, but this one was for bigger kids, because it had 22 inch wheels instead of 20 inch ones. It was really neat, and had a “speedometer” that told you how fast you were going and a “pressure basket” over the back wheel to carry stuff on your bike. I was glad it wasn’t those regular baskets, like on mom’s bike, because those looked kind of stupid.
Joey hadn’t come to my party, because mom didn’t know he was my friend and I didn’t tell her to invite him. He was still eight, and now that I was eight too, I didn’t feel like he was older than me anymore. Joey liked to “brag”, and tell me all the big kid stuff he was doing, like riding HIS twenty-two inch bike.
But he also liked it when I did bragging too, so that was kind of fun. So I told him I had a twenty-two inch bike now too, that I just got for my birthday. I told him it had a “speedometer” that told you how fast you were going, and a “pressure basket” which looked really cool, not stupid like those regular bicycle baskets that some girls and grownups had on their bikes.
My other school friends – Gabe, Herbie, Jake, Lenny and Amanda – didn’t like to “brag”, or talk about themselves. They liked to talk about other stuff, like dinosaurs, the Civil War, submarines or Captain Nemo. Amanda liked to talk about how silly the other girls were and how stupid the other boys were.
“My older brother just got a record player for his birthday”, Joey said, “And mom and dad said I could listen to it too.” He showed me some of those circle record things like Margie had and took one out. It had the hole in the middle, a big red part around the hole and then the black part where the song was.
“Have you heard of the Beatles?” he asked, and I shook my head, “They’re from England, and my brother says that all the older kids like ‘em.”
He put the record over the middle sticking up part of the thing and it kind of wiggled down to plop on the circle part below. He turned the switch and the record started turning. He lifted up this other part and carefully put it on the edge of the record. I’d seen Margie do this when she brought her record player and records to our parties.
The thing made a crackling noise and then there was a music part without any singing. Finally it sounded like two older boys singing together, both of them sounded excited, like they couldn’t wait to tell us. Though they each sang it different, their singing still sounded good together. I remembered Margie had said that was called “harmony”.
Last night I said these words to my girl
I know you never even try, girl
Then they did that thing where one sings first and the other sings the same words back. I don’t think Margie ever said what that was called. Maybe that was “harmony” too.
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Please, please me, whoa-yeah, like I please you
I couldn’t figure out what they were saying, saying “please” twice like they really really wanted something, but not saying what they wanted that girl to do.
You don’t need me to show the way, love
Why do I always have to say, love?
It sounded like maybe they wanted to get kissyface with her, but both of them at the same time? Did people do stuff like that? Or was it just supposed to be one guy singing it and the other was just singing along to make that harmony part. And I guess he usually tells her what kind of kissyface stuff to do, but this time he wants her to tell him.
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Please, please me, whoa-yeah, like I please you
There were those two “please”s again.
I don’t want to sound complaining
But you know there’s always rain in my heart (in my heart)
It was strange that word “complain”. Grownups would say, “I hate to complain”, and then they would start doing it.
I do all the pleasing with you it’s so hard to reason
With you, whoa-yeah, why do you make me blue?
I couldn’t figure out what “pleasing” meant. Was it like saying “please” a lot?
Last night, I said these words to my girl
I know I never even try, girl
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Come on (come on)
Please, please me, whoa-yeah, like I please you
When the song was done I said to Joey, “He says please twice but he doesn’t tell her what he wants her to do.”
“You don’t get it”, he said, “He wants her to PLEASE him, to make him happy by doing all the stuff a girlfriend is supposed to do to make her boyfriend happy.”
Wow, I thought, it sounded like Joey really knew about this kissyface stuff. Joey liked to talk about girls. Girls in our class or ones in the park. He was always interested in what they were doing or what they were talking about in the lilac bushes. I felt like a littler kid than him because I didn’t know all that stuff.
“Who do you think is the prettiest girl in our class?” he asked, “Mary or Diane.” Diane was Mary’s best friend in class and Joey’s desk was right behind hers. She liked doing everything Mary did. She had a long black ponytail which was kind of neat and made her look special and extra pretty, but I never really talked to her, because boys and girls didn’t talk to each other at school unless we had to, because we felt like we were on different teams.
“Sometimes when Diane is working really hard writing something I like to touch the bottom of her ponytail with my finger”, he said, “Sometimes she doesn’t turn around and look at me, just moves her head a little bit. But when she does look at me, I just shake my head like I didn’t do it. She gets a little bit mad but she doesn’t tell Mrs Rodney. She looks super pretty when she’s mad.” He smiled and said, “I think she likes me.” That all sounded exciting to me, and I thought about that time I showed Mary how to do long division and she kissed me on the cheek. Maybe I wasn’t such a little kid after all.
“You and Gabe and Jake are always talking to Amanda”, he said, “Do you think she’s pretty?” His question worried me, like maybe he thought we all wanted her to be our girlfriend, so I wasn’t sure what to say. Even though Amanda wore dresses like the other girls, I don’t think she even wanted to look pretty, because she thought the pretty girls were all silly, and she wore those big plastic glasses that made her eyes look big.
“Nah”, I said, “Amanda’s not a regular girl. She’s super smart instead of pretty.” Joey nodded like that made sense, and I was starting to feel like I knew stuff about girls too.
“Don’t tell Gabe”, I said, “But I think HE likes Amanda, because they’re both super smart.” Joey nodded and did a laugh through his nose like that made sense.
“What about Mary?” he asked, “I’ve seen you talking to her sometimes after school.” I got worried again about what to say.
I hadn’t told anybody what I thought about Mary or about how she kissed me on the cheek so I’d show her how to do long division, but I wanted to tell SOMEBODY. Most of my other friends didn’t talk about girls, even my best friend Molly, who WAS a girl. And Amanda only wanted to talk about bad stuff about girls.
“Mary kissed me on the cheek”, I said, “In Wurster Park.”
“WHAT”, he said, like he couldn’t believe it, “She kissed you?”
I nodded and said, “Two times.” That felt like really good bragging, because I could tell that Joey was a little mad that she had kissed me and not him. And I also felt good because I had FINALLY told somebody else about it.
“No”, he said, shaking his head, “She didn’t!” I felt like a really big kid now. That felt good.
“I wouldn’t lie to you”, I said. I’d heard big kids say that.
“Why’d she kiss you?” he asked, like he was now thinking I was really neat.
“Because I showed her how to do long division”, I said, “She wanted to know how to do it before Amanda did, so Amanda wasn’t always the smartest.”
“Did you kiss her back?” he asked. I suddenly felt shy about that and I shook my head.
“I would’ve”, he said, “She’s super super pretty!” I nodded because I thought so too.
“Were you afraid?”, he said, like maybe I was too much of a little kid to kiss a girl back, “I wouldn’t have been!” That sounded like bragging again, so it was my turn now. I thought about when Molly and I got naked together in her bedroom, and thought about how neat it would be to get naked in front of Mary.
“I WASN’T afraid”, I said, feeling kind of mad at him now, “I just was surprised.” Then, feeling that spring energy in the air, I said a swear word to really tell him how I felt. “Hell”, I said, “I’D pull down my PANTS for Mary!” It felt so good to say that to somebody, something I’d been thinking about for a long time.
“Hunh”, he said, looking worried now, “You’d really do that?”
“Well”, I said, “Only if she wanted me too.”
Then I could tell he didn’t want to talk about that anymore.
“My dad said he’d sign me up for Little League”, he said, “The practices start next month here at Almendinger. It’s the nine-year-old league. I’ll be nine in June so my dad said I’m old enough to play.”
I’d heard other kids talking about Little League, and I wanted to play too. I was pretty good at baseball, but I wondered if you really had to be nine to play. That wouldn’t be fair. I wondered if dad would lie and tell them that I was nine so I could play too.
The next afternoon in school it was time for recess. We were all standing around the classroom door waiting for Mrs Rodney to say we could go outside. Joey was across from me just behind Diane, who was wearing a red dress and had a red ribbon tied in a bow at the end of her long black ponytail. Joey looked at me and a couple of the other boys and made his eyes get really big like he was telling us “watch this”, without actually talking. His finger just quickly touched the ribbon, just enough to make Diane turn around and look at him, but when she did, he shook his head like he didn’t do anything. Theo, Gabe and Herbie did a little laugh, and Diane looked at them worried, like she figured they were laughing at her but she didn’t know why. I heard Mary’s voice behind me.
“Joey did it”, she said fiercely, “He’s always touching your hair. He thinks he’s in love with you, but he’s so disgusting!” We all liked using that word, “disgusting”. Joey looked really worried, like he’d been caught doing something really bad, and then looked mad.
“That’s not true!” he said to Mary, “I’m not IN LOVE with her. But you must be IN LOVE with Cooper because he said he would ‘pull down his pants’ for you!”
Both Mary and Diane did that breath in noise, like they couldn’t believe he said that. I heard Gabe and Herbie do that kind of laugh like you’re trying not to but you can’t help it.
I suddenly felt like I was in a bubble and I wasn’t really in the room anymore, but just looking at the room all around me. How could Joey say that? Everyone would think I was really bad. Maybe I really was bad. I could feel the kids around me looking at me, but I couldn’t look back at any of them and just looked at the floor. I wanted to somehow say, “I did not”, but I couldn’t get myself to say anything. It seemed like forever before I heard Mrs Rodney’s voice like it was slower and louder than it usually was.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” she said, “That’s enough of that kind of talk! Joey and Mary, please go over to my desk RIGHT NOW. We need to have a discussion. The rest of you out to recess, QUIET in the halls please.”
Other kids in the class were still looking at me worried as they went out the classroom door. Herbie and Gabe whispered to me, almost at the same time, “Did you really say that?” I still couldn’t make myself talk and just looked down and went through the door then out the big hallway outside doors to the sidewalk and the playground, with Herbie and Gabe following me and asking again, “Did you really say that?”
Once I got through the big doors and out on the sidewalk, I thought for a second I wanted to run home, but instead I ran to the far side of the playground and climbed inside the giant pipe thing where we all liked to hide sometimes, or pretend it was a submarine or a spaceship. Gabe and Herbie got down on their hands and knees on either end of the pipe and looked in at me.
“Did you really say that?” they both asked me again, but I couldn’t talk or even look at them. If I looked at them I figured they could tell that I really DID say that. I wondered if Joey had done something bad by telling on me. And then I was worried that maybe he WASN’T in trouble because he was just telling people that I had said something really bad, that I was a bad kid. A really bad kid. I felt my body get warm and I felt like I was going to fall asleep. I heard the voices of other kids nearby.
I heard Amanda’s voice ask, “Did he really say that?” Then Gabe said to her, “I don’t know. He won’t tell us.”
Herbie was still at the other end of the big pipe. He climbed inside and sat, though he didn’t sit next to me. I turned to look at him for just a second and then down at the ground again. I was actually kind of glad that I wasn’t in the pipe all alone.
“You know”, he said, “Joey’s not very nice that way. He’s not good at keeping secrets. He told Diane that I said she was pretty.”
“He likes Diane”, I said, “He told me he teases her because he likes her.”
“You know”, he said again, “If you DID say that about Mary, but you told me instead of Joey, I would NEVER have told anyone else.” I nodded. That made sense, though it was too late now.
“Even if you DID say it”, he said again, “Just say you didn’t, and that Joey made that up. He lies about stuff all the time.” I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure about that, feeling like everybody had already figured out that I said that about Mary.
I didn’t like lying, because if you did it about something, then you had to remember to keep doing it. And if people figured out you were lying, specially grownups, they’d think you were really bad. And I would start thinking I was really bad too. Instead of lying, I usually just didn’t say anything, because it was none of their business anyway. Even though I told him, it was none of Joey’s damn business anyway.
Amanda stuck her head in the other end of the big pipe and said, “Can I come in?” I nodded, but couldn’t even look at her.
“Well I guess I don’t really need to say that Joey is really STUPID”, she said, “Probably the stupidest boy in our class.”
“I don’t usually agree with Herbert”, she said, looking across at him on the other side of me, “But I do think he’s right that IF you really said that to Joey, he’s a really bad friend to tell everybody like that.” I nodded, though I wasn’t sure that they thought my nod meant I really said that, or just that Joey was a bad friend.
“I mean grownups do things like that”, she said, looking out the end of the pipe and not at us, “But I think it’s pretty terrible.”
“What kind of stuff?” asked Herbie, sounding like he was using his teasing voice now, which he usually did with Amanda, “Naked stuff?”
“I don’t want to talk about it”, said Amanda. She was quiet but her voice was still strong and fierce. “When we get really old and we’re in charge of things, we’ll make things different.”
“How will we have any babies?” Herbie asked, still with the teasing voice.
“I don’t know, Herbert, but we will”, she said. Then all three of us got quiet while the other kids were laughing and yelling around us.
Finally Gabe, who I figured had been sitting on top of the tube and maybe listening, stuck his head down upside down by the side of the tube where Amanda was sitting.
He made a big upside down smile and said, “I don’t usually agree with Amanda…”
“Shut up, Gabriel”, she said, not looking at him but grinning a little like she actually liked that he said that.
“I think recess is over”, Gabe said.
Somehow I managed to go back into the classroom with Amanda and Herbie and Gabe all around me. When I noticed Mary staring at me from the other side of the room and looking mad, I didn’t look at her anymore.
The last bell of the day FINALLY rang, and I was SO happy that I could go home. I’d been trying since recess to be invisible, I didn’t raise my hand and I didn’t look at anybody except the teacher when she was talking.
“Everybody’s dismissed”, said Mrs Rodney, “Enjoy the rest of your afternoons.” I stood up from my desk. Gabe came over like he was going to walk home with me, at least to his street.
“Cooper”, Mrs Rodney said, and I suddenly got really scared, “Please stay for a minute.” Gabe looked at me, worried, and then looked at Mrs Rodney.
“Gabe”, she said fiercely, “We will just be a minute. You can wait for Cooper outside the main doors. We need our privacy.” Gabe looked even more worried, but he nodded, looked at me one more time, opening his eyes wide, and then went out the door.
“Young man”, she said. She had never called me that before. Sometimes mom or dad, or some other grownup, called me that when they were really mad at me.
“Did you say that to Joey about Mary?” she asked. Her voice was quiet and trying not to sound fierce. I couldn’t even look at her, but I could tell she was nodding her head slowly.
“Well”, she said, and her mouth made a clicking noise as she opened it to say more, “Assuming you did, I would just like to say that you are a very good student and for the most part a very nice young man, at least as far as I can tell. I have already spoken to Joey about his behavior, but I just would like to say that you shouldn’t say things like that if you want to continue to be a nice young man. I hope you’ll think about that.”
I felt that warm bubble feeling in my head again, like I wasn’t really there. The words “you shouldn’t say things like that” kept repeating in my mind and everything else she said disappeared. These feelings I had about getting naked with someone else were making me a bad kid. I thought, what if she told mom and dad? I wanted to ask her if she was going to, but I was too afraid that if I did, that would sound REALLY BAD.
“You’re dismissed”, she said, “Now go out and enjoy the rest of your afternoon.” She smiled, but I figured it was just pretend.
Gabe was outside the big doors on the sidewalk waiting for me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about it but I was also glad I wasn’t alone.
“What’d she say”, Gabe asked, excited, “Are you in trouble? Is she going to tell your mom and dad?”
“I don’t know”, I said, not looking at him. I wasn’t thinking about that so much as just thinking about being bad. Having a grownup that was in charge of me thinking I was becoming bad.
“You should’ve asked her if she’s going to tell your mom and dad”, he said, looking worried, “Because if she doesn’t then that’s not too bad, it’s just her.”
I just didn’t want to talk, even though Gabe was one of my best friends, but I was so worried I just had to.
“But all the other kids heard that I said that!” The words just came out of my mouth.
“Yeah”, he said, thinking, like that WAS pretty bad that everyone heard, “That Joey is a total traitor, I don’t think I’ll ever talk to him again. If he was a soldier they’d hang him or shoot him with a firing squad!”
I had just been thinking about me, but what about Joey? How could he do that, say that to everybody? Was what I said, and what I was feeling that made me say that so bad that he had to tell? Would none of my friends talk to me because they’d think I wanted to pull down my pants? Mary probably hated me now, by how mad she looked when she was looking at me.
We crossed Jefferson and headed up the sidewalk on Fifth toward our houses. We walked quietly for a minute but I could tell Gabe was thinking.
Finally he said, “She would never do it, but if Amanda DID ask me to pull down my pants for HER, I MIGHT think about doing it.” Then he looked at me fiercely and said, “But if you tell anyone, I will completely kill you!” I nodded. I wondered if I had said that to Joey, after I told him, if he wouldn’t have said that in class.
When we got to his street he stopped and looked at me. “Be careful”, he said, “The grownups are still in charge of everything, and some kids will always rat you out to them.”
“I would never do it”, he said, and then pointing at me, “And you better not ever do it either.”
I nodded really fast to let him know I never would, then said, “I never, never would!” It felt good to say that, like I at least would never do anything against my team.
As he started to cross Fifth to head up the street toward his house, he turned back to look at me one more time and said, “Someday when we’re in charge maybe it’ll be different.” Then he ran across the street and started walking up the sidewalk to his house.
When I got to Allmendinger Park and got through the trees and could see my house across the baseball diamonds, I started thinking about what if Mrs Rodney called mom or dad and told them what I said. Would dad spank me? He hadn’t spanked me since I was three. Would mom be “very dissapointed” in me? Would they not let me do stuff by myself anymore because I had to be watched in case I tried to say more bad things or do more bad stuff?
Was I a bad kid because I liked being naked and being naked with people I really liked? Did that make me a sissy? No grownup ever wanted to see a kid naked unless they were your mom or dad and they had to because you were really little and they had to give you a bath or help you put on your clothes. No grownup wanted you to see them naked, not even your mom or dad.
I think Molly liked it when she and I got naked together. I did. When you were naked there wasn’t any pretending, no clothes to pretend you looked different than you really looked. It seemed strange to think that, because I and most other kids REALLY LIKED to pretend. Grownups did A LOT of pretending too, but it was different. They pretended that they liked stuff that they really didn’t like, that they were okay when they really weren’t. So I guess that was BAD pretending. What kids did was GOOD pretending.
As I walked by the kitchen windows to go in the side door I heard mom’s voice in the kitchen saying “dammit” a couple times. I figured she was paying bills, because she said that a lot when she was, and I figured she hadn’t seen me because then she wouldn’t swear if she had.
I went in the side door hoping just to sneak down into the basement, but she saw me.
“Hey Coolie Coo”, she said, “How was YOUR day at school? MY DAY is paying bills, and per usual, it’s not much fun.”
I didn’t want to talk about my day, so I figured I’d get her to talk about her stuff, so I said, “Why not?”
She looked at me like I should already know why not and said, “SOMEDAY, when your dad gets all his ducks in a row and gets tenure, the paycheck will be significantly higher, and I won’t go through this… process every month!”
“Ducks in a row?” I asked. I’d heard other grownups say that but never figured out what it meant.
“Yeah”, she said, laughing through her nose, “Your father’s not here to bestow his language expertise on us.” She did more nose laughing and said, “Let’s see… It means you’ve worked everything out with everyone else so that what you want to happen will happen. Does that make sense?” I nodded. I guess I didn’t have MY ducks in a row either.
Worried she would still ask me about school, I quickly asked, “What’s tenure?”
She did just a little nod and her eyes closed a little and she said, “Tenure is when a school offers you a permanent position, which usually means more money.” I nodded.
Suddenly I felt so scared that mom didn’t know who I REALLY was, a kid who liked to get naked and said he’d pull his pants down in front of a girl. I wished I could tell her and have her not think I was really bad, but I couldn’t risk it.
“I gotta go downstairs”, I said, and didn’t even wait for her to say something back before I ran down the stairs. I heard her laughing but it sounded like a sad laugh.
I was so relieved that David and dad weren’t in the basement. I could just be there all by myself. I put a couple race cars on my Aurora racetrack, the hotrod and the Stingray and turned the little wheels on their controls so they went around the track in opposite directions. I put my chin on the beaverboard by one corner of the track so I could watch them come or go down the long straightaway and not think about anything else.
Paul came over and mom told him I was down in the basement, so he came down the stairs and saw me just watching my race cars go down the long straightaway. I looked at him but then looked back at the cars.
“I don’t want to play”, I said.
“Why not?” he asked, “What’s the matter?”
I remembered that thing that grownups said to each other sometimes, and Amanda had said at recess. “I don’t want to talk about it”, I said.
“Is it something really bad?” he asked.
I felt my head nodding slowly, even though I didn’t want it to. No one could know how bad it was, not even Paul. Not mom or dad or Molly. I hoped that none of my school friends would tell them. I just had to pretend like it didn’t happen and never talk about it again, and maybe everyone would forget it happened and I could have another chance. I would have to be way more careful who I talked to about stuff like that.
“I do bad stuff too and don’t want to talk about it”, he said.
“Like what?” I asked, not looking at him.
“I don’t want to talk about it either”, he said. He sat down next to me and put his head down on the beaverboard so he could see the cars like I was seeing them.
The next morning I woke up to dad telling me I needed to get up and get ready for school. I had barely slept all night. My mind kept worrying and thinking. Was I really a bad kid because I talked about pulling down my pants and regular kids would never say stuff like that? Was I some kind of sissy because I wanted to do that? If dad found out would he want to spank me again and not like me anymore? Would my school friends still talk to me? Would Mary hate me forever? What could I do to make things go back to before I said that to Joey or he said it to everybody else? I wished there really was a time machine like Mister Peabody’s “Wayback”.
I couldn’t keep my eyes open and must have fallen back asleep because now it was mom waking me up. I told her I didn’t feel very good and she put her hand on my forehead and said I felt a little warm and said I could stay home from school. I stayed inside all day and just read books in my room or watched TV in the basement or played with my racing track. Watching the cars go around the track made me not think about other stuff.
After mom picked up David from Play School, she came down in the basement to check on me. She put her hand on my forehead and said it felt okay now, but that I looked like I hadn’t gotten any sleep.
“Did something happen at school yesterday?” she asked. I shook my head but didn’t look at her. “Are you sure?” she asked again. I shook my head again fast but still didn’t look at her. I could tell she was figuring out that maybe something HAD happened.
“If something’s going on at school”, she said, “I really wish you’d tell me so I can help you sort it out. I’m always on your side Cooper, I hope you’ve figured that out by now. And I’m always so so proud of how you chart your own course, and I’d move Heaven and Earth to help you do so.” She finally stopped talking and I nodded, but still didn’t say anything.
She puffed her cheeks and blew air out of her mouth and said, “I really don’t like to see you like this. You and your father just clam up when something’s bothering you.”
I knew mom by now. If she thought something might be happening at school, “moving Heaven and Earth” might mean calling my teacher, who might tell her what happened. That would be terrible. Mom and dad might think that I shouldn’t be able to do stuff by myself anymore and always want to know where I was and what I was doing. I couldn’t let that happen.
I knew I had to say something, or mom would get even more worried, and that wouldn’t be good.
“I promise I’ll go to school tomorrow”, I said, “I just needed a day off.” I had heard her say that “day off” thing to dad sometimes when she didn’t feel like doing all her chores.
“Okay”, she said, nodding, “I get that. But I also know problems just don’t go away if you don’t talk about them and work them through. If Mrs Rodney or some kid in your class said something or did something that’s really bothering you, from my experience, you should tell them honestly how that made you feel and talk it through.” Mom was good at figuring stuff out that she didn’t even know about, like she could figure out what other people were thinking. I got worried that maybe she could figure out what I was thinking.
“Otherwise”, she said, “You just keep it inside you and it can be like a wound that never heals and maybe just keeps getting worse. Believe me, I have issues with MY mother and MY brother like that that I’ll tell you about someday.”
“Yeah”, I said, finally looking at her quickly, “I’ll go back to school tomorrow. I’ll get it sorted out.” That sounded like a good thing to say.
“Okay, good”, she said, “I won’t pester you anymore. Just know that your dad and I love you dearly. We try not to interfere in your life unless you ask for help. But PLEASE, ask for help if you need it! Okay?”
“Yeah, okay”, I said, then figured I should also say, “Thanks mom!”
“You’re welcome sweety”, she said, and she started to laugh, “I’m always tempted to rub your head because it always feels so nice and reminds me of when you were a baby and I gave you baths in the kitchen sink. But I know you’re a big kid now and I can’t indulge that urge anymore, it’s not respectful of who you are now.”
“Well you can do it this time mom”, I said, “Because no one else is around.” She laughed again and rubbed her hand on my head. It felt good. I wished so much I could tell her, but it would be too dangerous, too risky.
The next morning when dad woke me up to go to school, I was still worried about what would happen there, but I knew I had to go, even if I didn’t want to. If I didn’t go this time, I figured mom would probably call my teacher, and that would be really bad. So I got dressed and went.
When I got to Gabe’s street, instead of walking by it, I looked down Fifth to see if he was walking ahead of me, but I didn’t see him, so I figured he hadn’t left his house yet, because he usually didn’t go to school early and came just before the bell. I was so happy to see him come out of his house, see me, wave, and then run down his street toward me and across Fifth.
“Did Mrs Rodney call your parents?” he asked. I shook my head but didn’t say anything. It was strange that he said “parents”, because usually only grownups used that word. Like they used the word “adults” too.
“Joey didn’t come to school yesterday either”, he said, “So I wondered if Mrs Rodney had called HIS parents. Joey told me that when his parents find out that he did bad stuff they punish him. They spank him and ‘ground’ him, whatever that means.”
“My friend Ricky says that when kids get ‘grounded’ it’s like they get thrown in jail by their mom or dad in their own house and can’t go out or do anything fun until their ‘sentence’ is over”, I said.
“Yeah”, he said laughing, “I remember Ricky from that birthday party when we were all in your basement instead of the park. He’s pretty funny.”
I was glad Gabe would be with me when I walked into class. I didn’t want to walk in all by myself. So right before the bell we walked in together, which was good because then no one could say anything to me or ask me any questions before it rang. Jake, Herbie and Amanda were there. Mary and Diane were there and Mary saw me and then looked out the window instead of looking at me anymore. Joey was even there, but he looked like he was just pretending he was okay, and once he saw me he wouldn’t look at me either. Mrs Rodney did her regular teaching stuff and didn’t say anything about it, which was good.
It was in the afternoon when we went out for recess that I worried what other kids would say to me, specially my friends. Once I got out the hallway doors onto the sidewalk I ran into the playground, running by other kids in my class to get to the big pipe before anyone else did. Gabe ran after me and so did Herbie. I saw Joey talking and probably bragging to some of the boys in the class who were all around him. Once I saw him I tried not to look at him anymore. And Mary and Diane were swinging on the swings, talking to each other and some other girls that were standing around them. I couldn’t tell if they saw me, because if they did, I wondered if they’d still be mad.
When I got to the big pipe no one was inside so I went in. It felt nice and dark and cool and not all bright like the rest of the playground. I sat in the middle and worried if all the kids in my class were still thinking about what Joey said that I said, and whether they all thought I was bad, or even maybe a sissy. Gabe came in one side and sat on that edge and Herbie sat on the other side. I was glad they both did that, like they both still wanted to be my friends and also were guarding me to keep me safe.
“Did you really say that?” Herbie asked, “Or is Joey lying, because he lies a lot.”
“Herbert”, it was Amanda’s voice outside the pipe where I couldn’t see her, “I don’t think Cooper wants to talk about it.”
“I just want to know if Joey was lying again”, Herbie said quietly to me.
I looked down at my sneakers and shook my head slowly. I think I felt “ashamed”. I had heard grownups use that word. I remember when Kenny’s mom got mad at him in the park for saying a swear word and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
When I shook my head Herbie looked worried, stopped talking and was thinking. But it didn’t feel like he was worried in a bad way. It was like he was worried about his friend, not some bad kid he didn’t want to be around anymore.
“Kids aren’t talking about it anymore”, Gabe said, “Mrs R handed back the math tests yesterday and Mary got the highest score, higher than Amanda. So they’re all talking about that.”
“That will never happen again”, said Amanda’s voice.
“And Theo got all his hair cut off”, Gabe said, “And Diane said that he looks like a ‘plucked chicken’.”
“He kind of does”, I heard Amanda say, “But it’s none of our business of course!”
“Of course”, Gabe said, trying to sound like Amanda. Then he looked at me and made a funny face. I started to laugh before I could stop myself.