For several of my grade and jr. high school years, my best friend Bec and I were in love with Davy Jones of The Monkees. (Well, I was, at least . . . I had strong suspicions regarding her loyalties, as she seemed equally smitten with Peter Tork— who even I had to admit had the cutest dimples around . . . but I remained true to Davy, nonetheless.) Each month one of us would spend part of her allowance on the latest issue of Tiger Beat, a monthly mag with glossies and gossip catering to teeny-boppers. Lying on her bed on our stomachs, shoulder to shoulder, we shared a type of intimacy of which only young girls are capable. We turned each page reverently, our eyes gorging on sugary-hip articles, and photos which would have stirred us to lust, if we were not so well-sheltered and naively waiting for our own Prince Charmings to whisk us away into the land of
I waited generously (though inwardly impatient) for Bec to read each paragraph, and for her eyes to feast on each photo, before turning the page. I was the bookworm and she, who hated to read, slowed me down almost to the point of unbearable aggravation. While waiting for her to finish a page, I studied my raggedy nails, picked knee scabs, and hummed my favorite Monkees songs, ranging from I’m a Believer to I Wanna Be Free. I rarely succumbed to actually tapping my foot, but deserve no brownie points for that. Only my fear of wounding Bec’s feelings kept me from such self-indulgence.
Sometimes when I got tired of humming or picking, I resorted to resentful thoughts like, why didn’t I read this first at home? or geez louise, how can anyone read so slow? I swear I could hear the minutes of my life ticking away into oblivion, never to be regained world without end. Minutes stolen from the sweet hours pilfered from my world of dishes, watching my younger half-siblings, or dodging the stepdad’s probing hands. My time was just way too precious for her to be fiddling with it like this, slowly mouthing words (never quite auidble, which drove me even more nuts!) as she moved her finger–moved her finger!–across each sentence, like Mr. Magoo reading braille. I can’t tell you how crazy that made me, that dragging the fingertip across each line of print. Watching Bec read was torture for me, not only because it wasted my precious time, but also because it seemed such a torture for her as well. Honestly, I don’t know who I felt sorriest for, but knowing me, it was probably myself.
Our friendship endured the testings of her slow reading vs. my impatience with just about anything slow. I wanted to move, move, move. My days felt like a manic version of the old game show Beat the Clock, even when I spent portions of them lolligagging in my backyard, sucking on grass stems and dreaming assorted dreams of fame (as a writer), beauty (as in Cinderella in her elegant ball gown)…or waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I didn’t know what the other shoe would look like when it finally smacked me up the side of my head–probably torn and smelly with the sole flapping like the bums I’d heard about on Skid Row, who lolligagged even worse than I did, and just kind of plopped into a heap on the sidewalk, making passersby swerve around them in a big huffy arc. They would stink to high heaven (wherever that was; I had my theories, and they scared me), and all their teeth would either be rotten, or long since disintegrated into nothingness from gross neglect. One thing I knew by heart: the weight, texture and color of the first shoe dropping. My own personal little holocaust, of sorts, it left me with 3/4 of my family MIA, and a raving lunatic of a tattooed facist running the show. And somehow, my own private plight made me painfully aware of the poor Skid Row bums. I suspect there was a good deal of self-interest intermingled with my compassion, for they provided me with a handy means of transference. If I couldn’t cry for myself (except sometimes under cover of dark, with a pillow muffling my sobs), I could easily shed tears at the mere thought of those poor men who were, after all, someone’s once-upon-a-time little bundle of joy.
The bums on Skid Row made me uncomfortably aware of my clean spanking-new ranch style house in the ‘burbs; made me too conscious (when I infrequently obsessed about them) of our wall-to-wall, three square meals, and, when the dictator in our midst finally broke down and bought one, our new console color TV.
On some level I knew that these poor homeless souls bothered more than my conscience. Decades would pass before I realized with not a little surprise that in some intrinsic way, I identified with them. With their lostness, their lack of hope–and yes, even their smelliness. I was smelly too, in a way that couldn’t be cured by all the soap and water in the world. My soul smelled . . . I was as sure of that as a classmate of mine was so sure she stunk, that every day before the beginning of class she’d sidle up to me and, in a whisper, ask me to sniff while she lifted her arm for inspection. Her nearly visible writhing with shame made me nervous, and I died a little death right along with her each time the ritual was enacted. (And no, she never did stink.)
I wanted to yell at her to stop with the paranoia. Wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her till her head flopped back and forth like a rag doll’s, as if by so doing I could shake some sense into her–or at least self-confidence. More than anything, I longed to be mean to her. I knew the only reason she obsessed about her b.o. was because some of our classmates teased her cruelly. They made fun of her looks (well, she did have a pug nose, sort of smashed in looking, and wiry, uncontrollable hair–all the Dippity-Do in Woolworth’s couldn’t tame its coarse texture.)
They also made fun of her (not to her face, exactly, but loud enough for her to overhear) because she was studious and too serious for her own good, and a complete social misfit. Not that I had room to talk, for I was a misfit too. This fact brought out the little sadist in me, and accounted for my need (never acted upon) to treat her with disdain. My oddities were more refined, though. I knew how to dress, for one thing. Knew to smile once in a while, and to tamp down on my visible excitement when given a poetry assignment, or anything to do with words words words.
While my classmate was a misfit, or M.R., as she was so meanly dubbed (meaning
mental retard), I was an outsider of a different sort. She stuck out like a sore thumb with her oily skin and thick glasses, while my oddities were of a more stealthy nature. It’s not so much that kids looked at me and immediately scoffed, and racked their brains for the worst insults in the universe–I was simply invisible. Not invisible to everyone, though. With your average run of the mill kid, I was accepted and even well-liked. But the cool clique (and they existed even in grade school) never quite saw me. Or if they did, couldn’t quite seem to generate enough motivation or heat to properly insult me. I knew I would never belong to their little society, and envy didn’t even raise its ugly head. It was more than fine with me if I never rose through the ranks of popularity in school; it took a lot of the pressure off, just knowing I never would and therefore needn’t try.