[A Valentine’s Day installment in the ongoing series “Really Kinda Gay Things I Did Before I Was Really Kinda Gay.]
By the spring of third grade at Manasquan Elementary the boys vs. girls mentality was beginning to break down. Cootie shot technology was available to all who were willing to walk around for the day with a ballpoint circle and dot on their forearm. Cootie tech allowed one to have physical contact with the opposite sex for the rest of the school day without having to worry about contracting the cooties.
The cooties was a highly contagious disease with no agreed-upon symptoms. I think today we’d call it a “syndrome.” A social I.B.S, if you will.
Shots were necessary because the playground was evolving. In the Fall, the schoolyard game of “Girls Chase the Boys” involved actually running at top speed to avoid being caught. Yet, in the Spring, the boys somehow got slower, and the girls got noticeably more aggressive in their pursuit. And it wasn’t just tag, it was “accidentally” tripping and some aggressive tackling. Then I began to notice that certain girls were chasing certain boys, and certain boys were angling to be in the path of certain girls. Instead of running in straight lines, the would run serpentine until the right girl caught them. They all were starting to change.
I milled about at the edge of field.
I figured I had best allow myself to be caught, and I knew exactly who need to do the catching: Lori Townshend. There were only two flaws to my plans. First, I was peripheral to her world. I existed only when dittos needed to be handed back to the person behind you. She, like everyone else, just sort of tossed the papers over her shoulders so she could get to sniffing the sweet, sweet ink that gave us the energy to get thru whatever dullness Miss Volpe decided to ditto that day. Second, if she were to chase me, then I couldn’t see her hair, which most certainly trailed behind like a herd of wild mustangs answerable only to her.
But I lie. Hair was too mild a word for what Lori possessed. From my perch behind her, I would hold crayons up to it in an attempt to determine its exact color. We weren’t just dealing with long brown hair. Chestnut waterfall maybe. Or a russet cascade. Maybe an auburn tsunami. I was kid with a 64-box of Crayolas and a thesaurus; I could go on all day.
Her hair, which normally went down to her middle back, would sometimes spill out all over my desk. You would think this would annoy me, and under most circumstances you’d be right. But Lori had the smoothest hair I’ve ever seen –to this day. It would fall upon my desk in an ever-changing collection of whorls. Each time she would shift in her seat, they would rearrange themselves into ever more pleasing patterns. One second they would be a Japanese painting of a storm-tossed sea; then they’re the handiwork of the world’s most visionary Mister Softee driver; next you could imagine them as part of a Hollywood Regency frame around a mirror in Paul Lynde’s fabulous penthouse.
At first I was content with just staring into the hair on my desk. But the temptation to improve was too strong.
Aware of the strictures against contact, I used the tip of my pencil to gingerly move the curls. While each new position was more pleasing than the last, they still weren’t perfect. So every day I would doodle ever new, ever more fantastical visions for Lori’s hair. They were mostly up-dos because that way I could still admire her curls but still have room for the ever-important dittos, which apparently I wasn’t doing so hot on. I fell so far behind that year, Miss Volpe called my mom into a conference that led to my mom inspecting my notebook every night for doodling. I had to tear out and destroy my hair perfection doodles every afternoon before boarding the bus. I usually got a good smack if a doodle was found.
For this forbidden perfection to be achieved, I would actually have to touch Lori Townshend’s hair –with a part of my body. My plans would need to be ongoing because perfection is ongoing. The standard twenty-four hour cootie shot would not do. I had heard a rumor that Dana Lizzul and Maria Donofrio were offering a cootie shot that lasted a whole week. It only took God six days. Unfortunately, one did not simply walk up to them on the playground; one sought audience with them. So I called in a lot of favors I had accumulated in the lunchroom by letting more popular kids eat some of my lunch. Finally, a meeting was arranged.
I was to sneak away and meet them in the old playground on the east side of the school. We weren’t really allowed in old playground anymore because of the danger presented by sliced golf balls from the neighboring Dix Hills Country Club. Did you hear about the kid in the 6th grade a few years ago who got killed by a ball? Went through the window and smacked him right in the temple at his desk. They keep it quiet because of the lawsuits. And some of the kids breathed in broken glass. A ball would go over the fence at least once a day presenting enough of hazard that they eventually wound up using Manasquan as administrative offices for the district.
I waited until Miss Volpe had to break up yet another altercation over time on the swings and bolted along the side of the portables. I was over to the east side in no time at all; I was always a perennial favorite in the 50-yard dash at the Manasquan Olympics. Dana and Maria would be waiting for me in the red tube. For some reason, when the old playground was built, concrete sewer pipes were considered appropriate for children to play on and in. I would have to cross about thirty yards of open ground before I could reach the red tube. I glanced up and saw the frayed netting that was supposed to protect us from errant balls, but we all knew it wasn’t high enough. It was a lovely early spring day, and the course would be crowded with folks just taking up golf again after a long winter. Slices were always more common in the spring. I figured I had at best a 60% chance of making it across the field without major head trauma.
I was panting by the time I made it to the red tube. Dana and Maria sat not inside the tube, but leaned against it so Miss Volpe wouldn’t see them. I would’ve waiting inside the tube, but those two did not care about the imminent death from above. Dana’s hair was frizzy, and it was obvious Maria’s mother cut her hair. I was ordered to enter the tube first. Dana and Maria entered from opposite ends; I was trapped between them. Finally after ten long seconds, Maria spoke, “So, why do YOU need a cootie shot?”
“I mean… ha!” snorted Dana.
“I just need it,” I stammered.
“Who’s it for?” demanded Maria. These two dealt in information; the shots were a means to an end.
I looked at the ceiling of the tube and muttered, “Lori Townshend.” Dana snorted. Maria repeated the name just so she could make sure she heard what she heard. “You? Lori?”
I needed to get back to the new playground before Miss Volpe did a head count. “Can I just get the shot?”
“Sure,” said Maria just before she drew the circle and dot of the regular cootie shot on my left arm; Dana took care of the right. I was disappointed –it was just two normal shots. “Is this it?” I asked.
“No!” they said in unison. They then began to both kick me, a little too violently for cooties I thought. They laughed. And kept laughing. But who was I to argue? They already had the information they needed. I had to crawl past Dana in order to escape. I think she touched my butt. I’m sure that violated some sacred Hippocratic Cootie Oath.
I made it back to the new playground in enough time to watch Lori on the swings for the last swings of the period. When she went backwards, and the hair enveloped her face, it was like she was doing a Nestea Plunge into her own perfection. In slow motion of course. Lori’s hair could control time.
Recess ended. Even though I had paid for a seven-day inoculation, I would need to act as soon as possible because as soon as those two extortionists hit the bus loop after school, it would be out. Lori would know from them. I’d have no chance. Or worse, they’d come up with and arrangement where I could secure their silence. I wouldn’t see a tater tot at lunch for the rest of the year, if I knew Dana.
We took our seats. A not especially fragrant ditto made its way back. I would need to get my courage from my own reserve, not out of jug of ditto ink.
I closed my eyes. Bit my lower lip. I felt like I was tumbling like how you do when you’re about to doze off, but I wasn’t stopping. Nothing jerked me out of my mission. I gathered her hair into my hands. Some locks were so smooth, they spilled from my fingers. However, I was able to gather up enough to put a pile atop her head. The curls were still there, but there for everyone to see. My time doodling ideas had paid off. She looked amazing. “There!” I crowed.
Lori’s hand shot up. She didn’t even wait for Miss Volpe. “Chris keeps touching my hair!” All heads swung towards me. I let go of the hair, and my creation imploded. It was like her whorls shattered when they hit my desk. I thought I could hear a scraping sound as Lori gathered them up and imprisoned them between her back and her seat.
Miss Volpe towered over me. She practiced discipline through relocation.
I spent the rest of the year sitting in the front row.