The first morning after my last day of fifth grade, Mom informed me that my summer vacation and girlhood were over.

Me: Reading A Wrinkle in Time in my room, hoping to pull a Meg Murry and tesseract to another planet.

Mom (with a cursory knock while opening the door): “Great news! You get to attend those Summer Enrichment Seminars you enjoyed so much last year. And you can wear … ” she pointed with her thin, well-manicured finger at the second drawer of my white dresser — “your little bra.

That was how she pronounced those words, italicized, the final “ahhh” birthing in slow motion as it burrowed like a parasite. I ignored her. She smiled and shut the door, knowing I didn’t think this news was great at all; I was going to be shuttled off to a glorified babysitting venue against my will, and the two pink pop-up tents on my chest could no longer be ignored.

I stared with great intent at my book, praying that Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit would come for me, after which Calvin O’Keefe would remove my glasses, see past my frizzy hair and braces to the real, beautiful me, where my oddball quirks increased my charm.

I pointedly avoided the drawer where the dreaded white-eyelet garment lurked. Inside, straps criss-crossed over a tiny pink rose, cups padded with wisps of cotton to puff the nipple buds into a shape. A video at school had warned me that I might need one of these someday, a training bra. The word conjured images of Wheaties box champions, teams of pre-teen girls racing, arms outstretched, as they competed for Olympic breasts.

The pink rose didn’t fool me.

Sure, I was in training. Training for hell.

***

The first day of the Summer Enrichment Seminars I lucked out. Mom enrolled in summer school so Dad would be driving me. No way would Dad confront me about anything to do with undergarments. That morning I insisted on wearing my yellow rainslicker to cover myself, even though it was July in Alabama.

“I’ll freeze in there,” I insisted. I had a point. Southerners, in retaliation to the heat, generally keep their interiors the temperature of a meat locker.

Dad gave me a sideways glance but he didn’t argue. We drove in silence. I didn’t even whine about why I had to attend more school right after regular school was out. I hated the constant shuttling about, and many of these so-called educational events were suspect. One time, my mother enrolled me in a baton twirling class – held inside a trailer. And all the coach did was yell at us while she ate McDonald’s. After that, I begged my father to let me stay at home. But then he dropped this on me: “Boy, when I was a kid I sure wish I could have done all this great stuff.”

Dad had grown up in a cold, grimy Catholic orphanage in Buffalo, New York, and there was just no arguing with that. He had scrounged and strived so I could live the pampered life of a middle-class ingrate. Still, I’m guessing Dad never had to Fancy Strut in front of a former soy bean queen who yelled, “Glimmer, little glo worm! Glimmer!” between bites of her Big Mac.

All I am saying is this: if you are going to eat, you should bring enough for everyone.

***

I was plunked on the curb of Holt Elementary with a bologna sandwich in a rumpled paper bag and a Chronicle of Narnia stashed in my shorts. I filtered inside with the other nerds of Tuscaloosa County. We were handed a regimen ranging from Life Sciences to Macramé, and dutifully marched to our classrooms so we could become enriched, like flour. The seminars were for “gifted” children, those of us who had passed some third grade Mensa quiz that made sure we never got to spend our summers hanging out at the pool or skipping rocks.

Our first activity of the day was Dramatic Arts, which was held in the gym. When I put on my slicker that morning I had counted on the usual Alabama indoor arctic blast. The gym was a sauna. Within a minute I had mortifying armpit stains and removing the slicker wasn’t an option. Soon, sweat began to drip down my back. I waited in dread for one of the odd looks directed at my slicker to become an outright accusation. At some point I knew some loud-mouthed girl (there was always a loud-mouthed girl) would shout, “Why are you wearing that stupid jacket?” while everyone stared and I stammered through some lie. I carefully shifted around to keep myself a moving target. To my relief, this teacher was the bossy kind who left no room for chitchat or humiliation.

The woman’s hair was albino blonde drawn back in a severe bun. She wasn’t old or young. She didn’t wear make-up or speak with a Southern accent. Her thin lips like a slash said there was a special treat in store for all of us. We would get to perform Macbeth. She informed us she was a real live director from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival who was going to help us perform a modified version of the play. We came to understand this woman was no ordinary educator and we were very fortunate to have her. This opportunity would be an experience.

We tried to look impressed even though we had no idea what she was talking about.

“Shakespeare was a great playwright!” shouted Norvin Richards, a scrawny dweeblet who came up to my neck. Norvin was a tow-headed philosophy professor’s son with glasses held around his head by an elastic band.

The director dutifully acknowledged Norvin’s superior knowledge, which fired the geek cadre into life. We were all used to being number one in our classrooms, but now all the number ones were gathered together. Who was number one now? We didn’t know anything about the Great Bard, but we were familiar enough with school plays to know that someone would get to be the star. The director furrowed her brows for a minute before she arranged us in groups. Then she stood back, hand on hip, scrutinized, frowned, and re-arranged us again. This second grouping appeased her. I was moved to the back. The slicker stuck to my skin where her hand cinched my forearm.

With a heavy sigh (Oh! Woe! Why had she agreed to this?) the director handed out scripts and explained how things would be: there wasn’t much time, and this wasn’t how a theatre was usually run, but she would make do. We were not to roughhouse around the stage props, which were very generously on loan. Auditions would be held at our next meeting. The performance would be held in two weeks.

It wasn’t too hard to figure out that if the name of the play was Macbeth, then the female lead was Lady Macbeth. While the director paced and lectured I took inventory of the competition. These girls with bony limbs and terrycloth onesies weren’t of the sleek blow-dryer tribe from public school. One girl with a freckle-smeared face adjusted her scoliosis brace. Another bent to scratch her scabs. No gleaming, tanned, tube-topped cheerleaders here. I had a shot. The Norvin kid poked my arm. A shot of panic ran through me. I had almost made it through the day unnoticed.

“Hey, lemme tell you a secret,” he said.

I bent down. He cupped his hand over his mouth, leaned into me, and belched.

***

Our last enrichment of the day was Living Chemistry. Within a minute we were all in the thrall of Miss Bussian, a college chemistry student with honey-blonde hair, tan skin and a mesmerizing Aztec skirt. The despair of our lost summer vacation melted in a desire to merge with her orange-blossom scent. She loved us each the best, we could tell.

Miss Bussian gave us each a Petri dish and a sterile cotton swab. We were instructed to lightly touch a surface, and then lightly touch the agar, and see what grew on the special medium. Just like real scientists!

Being the enriched child I was, I gripped my swab and over-analyzed the situation. I had already bombed Life Science earlier that day. While everyone else oohed and ahhed over the paramecium flagella in their microscopes, I had faked fascination over a water bubble. The pressure of redemption weighed heavy. This was my chance to make visible the microscopic, to reveal an object’s true nature. Everyone else seemed confident as they ran around the room, dabbing the aquarium or the pencil sharpener, but every time I started to make a move, I froze. I mean, who really cared to reveal the inner spirit of a crayon?

Then I thought of something I wanted to know more about.

I snuck the swab into the bathroom, locked the door, pulled down my shorts, and performed a pre-teen version of a pap smear. I slipped back in the classroom, stealthily lifted the glass lid, touched the cotton end the exact way I was instructed, and sealed the dish.

***

“Out, damn spot! Out, I say!” I practiced in my closet to escape parental scrutiny. If I tried to add intensity, I only sounded shrill. Mostly I sounded drab, put to shame by the dramatic skills of the housewife who mourned “those dirty rings” on her husband’s shirts, before she discovered the delights of Spray ‘n Wash. For the sake of High Art the word “damn” had been approved for minors, but it stuck in my craw. Raised in the Bible belt, I just couldn’t shout a curse word. As I tried to project “How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me,” I knew the word “milks” was gross somehow, causing me to fumble.

Yet I persevered. My desire for the female lead was rooted in a long history of frustration. As an early puberizer who had always been tall for her age, I had always been assigned male parts in school plays.

In first grade all the girls were sunflowers, except me — the tree.

In the play about a cavity, I was the dentist.

In Charlotte’s Web I played Fern’s father, Mr. Arable. For my big moment I got to waddle on stage in overalls, slop Wilber, and shout “That’s one terrific pig!

In our fifth-grade production of Broadway Musicals I lip-synced “Go Greased Lighting” in a mechanic’s suit.

I was determined to break my long string of roles performed in drag, so in my closet I persisted. I knew my voice was wrong. I didn’t sound like a Scottish queen driven to psychosis, but the blah blah of a Peanuts character with a southern twang. But I had experienced transformation again and again in my piles of books; so technically, I knew the experience was possible. Everyone knew it took the pressure of a real challenge to forge greatness.

***

That next day the director shouted our roles while we squirmed. My heart thudded as the bit parts were doled out. Eventually, there were no female parts left except Lady Macbeth and I allowed myself a giddy whiff of hope until —

“Kelly Ferguson! MacDuff, loyal Thane of Fife.”

I didn’t even get to be a Weird Sister, and worse, I had a wife. Lady MacDuff and I avoided eye contact. Ashley Phelps, a willowy girl with blond hair, freckles, and a soft voice was awarded the prize role. She squealed for joy and we all hated her.

One look at the director, already back to grabbing people by the elbow, made me realize it was no use complaining. For our first read-through I wandered Birnam Wood (potted banana trees) with Macbeth, Norvin Richards. As the director went to work on the Weird Sisters we giggled and roughhoused with the props. That we were not supposed to touch anything made wearing the helmets and scurrying around all the more awesome.

***

In Living Chemistry, Ms. Bussian told us to check on our Petri dishes.

“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see much,” she said. “It can take up to a few weeks.”

We had labeled our dishes so everyone could keep them straight. Needless to say I had no intention of writing “My Vagina” with black marker on a piece of masking tape, so I wrote “Inside Desk” instead.

Despite everyone’s excited swabbing, most kids only had a few dark specks, while most had nothing at all — Special Class once again specializing in the mundane. But in the back, one disc emerged from the wash of spotted beige. Encased in glass, a black furry caterpillar crawled across its dish.

“Wow,” said Miss Bussian. “That’s really something.”

She checked the label and looked at me askance, but no way was I telling. Everyone gathered around the dish and gawked. I worried that Ms. Bussian, a science expert, would know vagina growth when she saw it, and that I would be outed somehow for cheating. Given the creature coming to life in the Petri dish, perhaps I should have been more worried about personal hygiene. God knows what that swab picked up from the Holt Elementary bathroom. But health was a small sacrifice to pay for glory. I found myself pleased as Miss Bussian examined the dish in the fluorescent light.

My macramé bracelet was crooked. I still only saw water bubbles in Life Science. The more I tried to project in Shakespeare, the more my atonal voice matched my limp cardboard sword. But in Living Chemistry, I was a star. As the weeks passed other kids had blotches, smatterings, maybe a little gray fuzz. An unfortunate few, like Lady Macbeth, still had nothing (ha!), her surface blank.

Miss Bussian tried to interest us in the periodic table, and she brought in some liquid nitrogen, which was pretty cool, but really we all just wanted to see what was growing in our Petri dishes, or, more to the point, what was growing in my Petri dish. By the end of the week the caterpillar had morphed into a baby hamster surrounded by tornado funnels dervishing in the air.

“Dude!” said Norvin Richards in admiration, whose beige slab sported only an unimpressive smudge.

***

The day of the play it was time once more for me to don male drag. My mother slicked back my long hair with Depp gel. I was allowed to wear make-up, but only base and extra eyebrow pencil, not eye shadow or lipstick. The true horror of my situation emerged when I put on my costume — tights with a man’s white shirt (my father’s) worn over the top and belted. The shirt, though, came up too short for comfort and was transparent. With my mother involved, there no avoiding another debut — the little bra.

Today girls can opt for a training bra that is more like a little tank top — the Velcro version of shoelaces. In the seventies, bra training was more serious. We were thrown into the deep end of adjusting straps that dug into our shoulders. We trained for discomfort, for how to adopt a constant half-smile when in fact we were freaking out over the elastic strangling our torsos. We trained for the telltale straps that everyone could see through our blouses, and how to maneuver our arms so we could hook and unhook the back. The “wiggle in” technique worked for the novices, where we assembled the gear, stepped in, and shimmied up. All this training supposedly existed for the purposes of modesty, but these bras only seemed to highlight the two chest beacons that would forever define a part of how we would be perceived as women.

When I shuffled out of my room in my Scottish warrior garb, my parent’s hands slapped over their mouths, trying to disguise their mirth. My overall look was completed by a pair of old moccasins, making me a dead ringer for the last pirate Mohican. My parents had just pulled it together when I reached for my sword wrapped in aluminum foil.

“Lead — on — MacDuff,” Dad sputtered, and they fell over again, wheezing and gasping with tears glittering cruelly on their cheeks. I ran back to my room and slammed the door. No way was I going to be in that damn play. Although, eventually my Catholic heritage of guilt and duty kicked in as my parents reminded me of my responsibilities. When they wanted pictures, however, I balked. No gruff voices, guilt trips or sighs from Dad could make me budge on this point. I didn’t care what sort of selfish, ungrateful wretch I was.

“She’s feeling sensitive, Patrick,” Mom said, the corners of her mouth twitching, and all I can say is it’s a good thing that sword was fake.

At the auditorium, Lady Macbeth was in full regalia. She wore an Empire waist lavender gown with floating gauzy layers, her blonde hair piled in a medieval topknot with ribbons. We thanes and witches choked with envy. I looked around to discover that all the other Scottish warriors at least had a real tunic and real tights. My tights were not tights but support hose — I looked as though I had forgotten my pants. Now I was angry. Not only had I been miscast, I had parents who would rather be thrifty than make sure their daughter didn’t look like a complete idiot. Perhaps some of my own Scottish ancestry kicked in; I was ready to go on stage and kick some serious Elizabethan ass.

While internal pep talks and personal belief are the cornerstones of children’s literature, they’re best left to those with the ability to tesseract across outer space, a skill I would soon pray for. Once I had been given the part of McDuff I had lost interest in the play, goofing around with Norvin Richards during rehearsals and reading Madeleine L’Engle books at home. I hadn’t learned my lines. When it was time to take the stage, I had absolutely no idea what to say.

Terrified my shirt would fly up, I minced across the stage as I kept my sword clutched by my side, shoulders hunched to hide my little bra. I patched together pieces of dialogue, hoping to mask my botched lines, but the hot white lights and auditorium of staring parents did nothing to help. My tepid storming of Dunsinane Castle had the texture of Velveeta. The bird-chested Norvin Macbeth could barely lift his sword. My brawny guns, strong from after-school activities and fueled by resentment, made the outcome of the duel a gimme, my execution perfunctory as I splatted the corrupt king to the ground in one swat, thereby killing whatever there might have been of a crush as well.

Tomorrow?

Nobody thought so, not three times, not even once.

My one consolation was that all the enriched kids bombed. Lady Macbeth wailed through her soliloquy with wretched melodrama. The Weird Sisters were depressingly normal, hunched and giggling through all the best lines. As thanes flung fake mutton at one another, I wondered if anyone had really ever seen a paramecium in Life Science. The director spent the performance running around and hissing lines. Her hair pulled tighter and tighter, causing her expression to resemble a botched facelift. Banquo’s ghost was the only success. His comedic interpretation, a brilliant improv in which he “did the Hustle” around the banquet table, brought the performance to life. At curtain call we shuffled out hangdog to take our bows, but Banquo sprang to the front, arms outstretched as the applause meter surged from golf clap to the real thing.

Afterwards I hid backstage pretending to fuss with my props. I didn’t want to face my parents, who would tell me I had been good while their amused smiles told me otherwise. I was in pantyhose. All the parents would chat with other parents, who would all say how great it had been. I would have to congratulate Lady Macbeth and have my picture taken with Lady MacDuff — my wife — all of us squirming while the adults suggested we get together and play sometime.

I was too old to play.

I made my escape. The heavy door clicked, erasing the small-talk echoes of the auditorium. I ran down the hallway, my hose sliding on the glossy linoleum. I checked both ways before entering the Living Chemistry classroom. It was dark and silent except for the gurgle of the aquarium. No one could see. I tiptoed to the back of the room, where the rows of tiny, quiet moons gestated on the counter. The growth in my Petri dish was now a longhaired guinea pig smooshed between two clear Frisbees. I put a brown paper towel in my hand to keep from leaving fingerprints. I formed a tiny teardrop of drool, and just when it was about to drop, lifted the lid and gently spat on the fuzz of my genius.

Pages: 1 2 3 | Single Page