We loved Chris.
We recognized in her the unknowable and terrifying flower,
whose fragrance was destined to drive us mad.
Chris, the new girl, turned a whole class of third
grade boys upside-down. Before she came, we played happily together.
Boys and girls. It didn't matter. Our games were the same.
Our voices on the playground were indistinguishable. There were girlfriends
and boyfriends -- Robert and Angela, Peter and Rachel, Danny and Joy.
But it meant nothing. It was pretending. Like playing house,
or super hero. Our bodies gave us no clues to the meaning of the
roles we played.
But Chris, without ever meaning to, brought something new to the game --desire. Chris. Christine. She had long, brown hair, big, innocent eyes and the prettiest little turned up nose. And after we saw her, nothing would ever be the same again. For the desire was so powerful, and so dangerous as to send us boys screaming in terror from its presence. We vainly invented intricate rituals to deny and diffuse the power she held over us. And we punished her, punished her mercilessly for the ache she awakened in us.
Almost overnight, we dubbed Chris the Cootie Queen. We refused to talk to her, to look at her, to even come near her. Anything she touched was infected with cooties, and we wouldn't touch it.
When we posed for our class picture, I was placed on the front row next to Chris. Several times the photographer told me to move over closer to her. I thought I was already closer than I could bear. But the photo still gives testimony to the poignant truth. There is little Chris, her hair done up prettily for school picture day. She is smiling sweetly, showing where her new teeth are growing in. But she stands isolated like a leper, huge gaps on either side of her like the gaps in her smile. To the right of her, Lloyd is keeping his distance. To the left, little Peter, smiling angelically, is smashed into Gus's shoulder as far as he can go.
The only times we would bring ourselves to talk to Chris was to torment her. In the first Mrs. Piggle Wiggle Book, there's a chapter called The Radish Cure, about a girl who refuses to take a bath. It is illustrated with a line drawing of a little girl with long dark hair and a turned up nose, apparently naked, running to escape bath time. Well, you can probably guess; I brought the book to school. Covering all but the girl's head with my hand, I showed the picture to Chris and asked didn't she think it looked like her. When she agreed, I removed my hand to reveal the naked body underneath.
We were obsessed with her body. We invented games. Dirty games. Evil games. Games that bespoke the confusing mix of loathing and longing we felt.
Robert and Gus and I formed the Hate Chris Club. Sometimes at Robert's house, we would pretend we were tiny parasites, crawling around on her giant body. A storm drain under the road became a variety of orifices. Sometimes it was her mouth and throat, and we would crawl inside, and shout third grade obscenities out the end to get her into trouble. Pushing a lawn mower, we would race over the grass, pretending we were cutting off Chris's beautiful long brown hair.
We folded notebook paper to make four-pointed cootie catchers, and wrote Chris's name all over them. We made drawings and cartoons to show the various ways of humiliating her. One of the most elaborate devices was taken from a real life experience.
Chris sometimes wore a sleeveless sun dress to school. When she leaned over her desk to write, the front of her dress would scrunch out away from her body, making it easy to peer in at her still undeveloped chest. Unbeknownst to Chris, Gus and I, who sat on either side of her, would look through the armholes of her dress, waving at each other past her tiny nipples. It wasn't long before I had constructed a Chris paper doll with an ill-fitting sun dress that bowed out in front.
I'm not proud of these admissions. In retrospect, our behavior seems shameful and mean. Chris never did anything to provoke us, never asked for the weird attention we paid her, never even fought back. I'm sure there are days she went home in tears. I only hope she forgives us.
I write these things here to try to understand them. Where did all this anger come from? We were taught to play nicely with the other children. No one taught us about this dark side of desire. Yet it surfaced unbidden.
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