rmal school • fall 2010
girlish embrace. Were I to somehow unearththis lost footage of my memory, and thread thedusty lm gingerly through a projector, I might watch as Jackie walks alone toward a home Ioften wondered about.She was the predictable brunt of jokes.Once in the cafeteria, Andy asked her toa dance, and we all watched the charade,smothering snorts and giggles behind ourhands. When the reality dawned on her, Jackie’s face drained of color, and her mouthdropped open as if she were puzzling over aproblem that everyone else had solved. ere were no friends for her to dash away with.Instead, she bore it up; I distinctly remem-ber her back stiening beneath her whiteuniform blouse. Whether she turned on herheel and left or stayed and stomached herlunch beneath the hoots, I can’t recall. At anall-school picnic in Rock Creek Park, Jenny,a very pretty blonde girl recently stripped of popular status, and so reduced to makingfriends with the likes of Jackie, told everyoneshe could a sad and juicy truth:
Jackie told me last night that her dad comes home with liquor on his breath!
e drama of this public cruelty had a morecomplex timbre for us. is gossip reeked of home, of privacy, of desperate condences.is joke made my small chest go cold. Jackie’shumiliations were dragged from her house,her privacy pawed at and scattered. We hadthoroughly defeated her now.How clichéd this all sounds! e lonely homely girl, the alcoholic father, the unthinking,opportunistic classmates. I hesitate as I writeabout Jackie’s misfortunes: clichés arise fromtruth, of course, though their dailiness obscuresand undermines truth-telling. e sharing of such childish cruelties morphs into a kind of adolescent pornography; sheer repetition of astock narrative numbs us. And yet it lingers,like a mother’s tight grip, leaving a mark. Jackie’s complicated face in the cafeteria, heraudible gasp as Jenny gleefully cried out hersecrets. A bruise remains.
o much has changed from my youth. e woods remain fecund, though they havemostly vanished. When I visit my parents’house in Wheaton, Maryland, the house in which I was raised, I remember the alarmingrate at which nearby woods were removed whenI was a kid. Woods wherein I once lost myself in heady darkness were leveled with astonish-ing ease and alacrity, paved for handsome,large, bright houses with forbidding doors andenormous picture windows. Equally curious were the changes going on in the backyard of Dr. and Mrs. Fox, who lived in a house next toour split-level on Amherst Avenue. e househad long since made its presence felt as a chalky white acid seeping beneath the north fence thatbordered our yard, choking o an increasingly widening circle of our grass. I remember my mother peering down at the mysterious patchone afternoon with discreet consternation,behaving as the trained nurse she was. To me itseemed as if our neighbors were simply moreadvanced than we were. After all, they had apool in their backyard—we did not, we never would—and surely our creeping glacier was asmall if inevitable price to pay for their subur-ban enhancement. Less wilderness to mow. As the natural world slowly vanished, I losta kind of enchantment. I looked forward tothe end of my daily walk home from Saint Andrew’s: a diversion through Mr. and Mrs.Vengrouskie’s backyard on Arcola Avenue. A tiny creek zigzagged through their property over which they had constructed a small footbridgemade of quartz and mica rocks and concrete.is blessed their yard with a nearly European,Old-World charm to my ten-year-old self, and I would make believe that I was in the Black For-est in Germany, with miles of hills and solitudeand friendly, pie-faced children awaiting me when I emerged. e tiny bridge led me intothe recesses of the Vengrouskie’s yard, perpetu-ally cool even on the most humid of suburban Washington DC afternoons, a darkly drapedmini-forest that, though it was merely a hun-dred or so feet from my own home, transportedme. e Vengrouskie’s modest, landscaped yardbordered larger woods that my friend Mike hadthe great fortune of living next to. In fact, formany years—until they were leveled for a largehouse—these woods
his backyard. We would lose ourselves in the maze of thickly-growing ash, acorn, and maple trees, navigatinga course of fallen limbs and dive-bombingcrows. e moment I entered the trees, my sense of demarcation—the civic parlance of suburbia—lifted. is is where my obsession with innity must have begun.My sensuality began to bloom as well,though dimly. Years after these trees wererazed I kept a pornographic novel hidden inthe moist recesses of a tree stump across thestreet from my house. By the time I’d reach iteach day—and it was all that I could think todo—my heart would be pounding up throughmy neck, my hormonal body trusting to fearand lurid excitement. Lifting the book fromthe stump was a nearly obscene gesture: thenovel was often heavy with the prior evening’srainfall, and I would gently pick away slugsand snails from the cover to reveal the nude,languorous woman pictured there. e dampand crass knowledge inside was ercely eroticand sprang from the fecund wetness all aroundme, the sharp, pungent odor of sopping grassand dank trees. It was a drizzling kind of erotic.My hands literally trembled as I peeled pagesapart like layers of skin. Years earlier, the woods behind Mike’s house was the scene of an event that remains troublingin my imagination. Predictably, details refuse tomarshal themselves: I’m sure of the participantsbut wildly unsure of the particulars. What year? What season? What motives? Mike was alwaysa risky boy, the kind who, when dared, wouldeat gum o the street. His face seemed perpetu-ally smudged with dirt and mischief. He wore
WHEN I WAS SIx yEARS OLD I HAD My ADENOIDS REMOVED AT HOLy CROSSHOSpITAL. ONCE, pASSING By A ROOM, I GLANCED IN TO SEE A SMALL BOy My AGE SITTING IN A WHEELCHAIR, GRINNING. HIS HEAD WAS SHAVED ANDHIS SKuLL puNCTuRED By A DOZEN TINy, BLACK HOLES. jACKIE WAS AN uGLy GIRL. AT AGE TWELVE, I COuLD SEE IT: THE DOuGHy,MOTTLED FACE, THE BuLBOuS AND HOOKED NOSE, THE FAT LEGS, THESTRINGy HAIR.