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What I Learned In Homemaking

By

The junior high school I attended was one hallway that went from a lobby of lockers to a small wing for the Homemaking lab, where Mrs. Andrews insisted we never touch the disposal switch with wet hands. We could electrocute ourselves, she warned. In her world, sewing a pair of sweat pants and making strawberry desserts with crushed pretzel crusts was the way to prepare ourselves to be the women we should become. Some of the girls in that class, like Tina A. in her Quiet Riot t-shirts and that red bandana around her black-jeaned thigh, already had rough edges, black eyeliner and a stance like a storm. It made me wonder about the distance between what we were being taught and what she already knew.

***

During the last period of the day, the students who played sports walked to the back of the gym and toward one of two doors, one for the girls locker room, one for the boys. Girls like Tina A. didn’t play sports. They sulked toward study hall, making fun of the required white shorts and light blue shirts we all had to wear. I played tennis. While I warmed up my serve or volleyed with an easy-going teammate, the boys practicing on the outside basketball court in their tank tops and shorts would openly stare at me and nudge each other between lay-ups and pass drills. I had no idea why they were looking until one night, Jeff T. and Ron G. called me from Jeff’s house. I sat on the edge of my bed, the base of my cream and gold Princess phone on the floor, its coiled cord pulled taut, the heavy handset pressed close to my ear.

Boys had called me.

“You have the biggest bush in the eighth grade,” Jeff told me, in a tone I would one day recognize as lust. “And the nicest tits,” Ron countered. I had often heard boys in Algebra II or in the hallway outside of Honors English make rude comments about how Carrie Little’s name should be changed to Carrie Big or how flat-chested Amy Saunders remained after the summer. I was relieved not to be in a category of complaint or ridicule but I was surprised to hear these boys had given more consideration to the hair under my shorts than I had.

It was the first of many phone calls, and I probably hung up on them, but not after feeling both embarrassed and a little flattered. For the most part, I ignored their confessions and grinning stares because I was afraid of what might happen if I let them hold for too long.

On the first day of seventh grade, Ron G. was the tallest boy in my first period class and wearing a Mountain Dew t-shirt. My mother never allowed me to wear t-shirts to school and jeans only on Friday, so in my experience, Ron, as he took his seat in the front row, carried with him a tinge of the forbidden. By high school graduation, he would be married with two small children. Jeff was the first boy I French kissed, an agreed-upon appointment established by a note passed during Texas History.  In the school annual, his dimples give him a look of innocence he does not deserve.

***

I am writing here of interrupted memory.

I do not recall how I ended up doing what I did behind the gym with those boys, who initiated the afternoon ritual, if a note was passed to me by an eager boy during Algebra, a folded piece of paper with a small triangle sticking out with the word, “Tug,” written in determined pencil. Perhaps, and I suspect it was something more along these lines, a tough girl in tight jeans, maybe even Tina A., had tired of the way my matching sweaters and skirts, my penny loafers and pink lip gloss stood against the coarseness of her Joan Jett anger, her untied shoelaces and effortless flip-offs. I would not come to know the word ingénue or its meaning for years. My mother called girls like Tina “dirty,” and those girls called me “bitch,” not for what I did, but what I didn’t consider. I’m sure Tina dismissed and taunted me for being what she had never had a chance to be herself, and I, curious about her hard edges and thick eyeliner, felt that stepping into the dark recesses of her territory was the only way to ensure she never threatened mine. In short, I was afraid of her, of what she knew, but I was also afraid of my own not knowing. I was afraid of why those girls were considered losers just because they played a different kind of game.

***

Mrs. Andrews’ class was fourth period, lunch period, an hour and a half divided between A, B, and C lunches. While the first hour of our class ended, and Mrs. Andrews told us how to apply our toenail polish before we took a bath so that any polish on our skin would soak off or be easily removed, the boys from B lunch had finished their dry chicken fried steaks and gathered in front of the gym. I looked beyond Mrs. Andrews, where she stood before us with her hands on her hips, to where the boys stood, and watched as one shot out beyond the huddle then chased the one who had pushed him, saw them toss their heads back in laughter, unaware that their post-lunch ritual was being observed.

I was always staring out windows in school, wondering what might be going on beyond where I was and what I knew. I’d watch the lone girl clutching a folder to her chest as she hurried to class, the basketball coach strutting to the gym, the choir teacher’s husband bringing her lunch. I could exist in two places at once.

***

It started between fifth and sixth period, when I’d rush from the stuffy classroom of Mrs. Richmond’s Algebra II to the locker room for tennis practice. The boys in Algebra always leaned out of their desks to check out the visible panty lines through Mrs. Richmond’s tight, cream pants. Forget quadratic equations and solving for x, those boys were all bush, all the time. A thirteen-year-old girl could only feel like a blank slate compared to Estee Lauder and voluptuousness—a blank slate that could be carved upon by the desperate, probing fingers of quickly developing boys whose voices, muscles, whiskers, and sour scents hinted at something darker. I didn’t want to fall prey to the threat; I wanted to control it. How little I understood, how naïve it was of me to think I could.

Even so, for a period of about two months in the spring of my eighth grade year, I met one boy at a time behind the gym, just outside the door to the girls locker room. The sidewalk back there was the edge of the campus, against it only an expanse of empty field. All the tennis players, football and basketball players, every cross country member knew about my daily make-out sessions and deferred by going through the gym to the locker room, even the girls, because behind the gym, I was letting some guy I knew only by name or the fact that the year before he had sat behind me in Physical Science to French, feel, or finger me.

The first was Ron G., who had to lean down, almost doubling over to reach my five-foot frame. Jeff T. got a turn, so did an extremely developed, held-back thug named Bruce who was known to go with Tina A. There were dozens of others. A family friend, a boy I had been afraid to kiss only two years before in his backyard, got the longest turn, a whole week and felt ashamed, I could sense. Most boys had bad breath or too much Polo cologne or were too timid to do more than kiss or were too aggressive and fast and so only got one brief fling before I moved on to the next one.

I’d step into the locker room and change into my white shorts, the light blue t-shirt before heading out to the tennis court. I’d stand at the base line waiting for the first serve, the boys lurking on the basketball court, our shared secret like a lob, a ball high in the air. Eventually, it would come down or be hit back with a force that made it impossible to return.

And then, it stopped.

Maybe someone who lived in the houses across the street from the athletic fields saw what no one at the school could see or even think to see and called the office. After all, the kids who made out were usually office workers who ducked into teacher supply closets. They were the couples who openly defied Mrs. Andrews’s requests to “get your hand off of her mmm-hmmm.”

I had no boyfriend.

I had boys, a long line of them wanting to know who would be next.

***

As the year drew to a close, Mrs. Andrews started letting us leave a few minutes before the bell. We finally convinced her of the threat of long lines in the cafeteria and having to eat quickly. Ever mindful of our etiquette, she would not have “her girls” eating improperly, stuffing our mouths. To Mr. Tanner, the vice-principal, the problem was what we stuffed into our mouths. He would not let a lunch go by without telling us that the pizza and cheeseburgers, the chicken fried steak and fries would make us fat. Then none of the fine boys seated around us in the cafeteria would like us anymore.

And while being first in line at lunch had its advantages, we were focused on the walk to lunch. Some of the girls had boyfriends in B lunch, and most of us had at least one crush out there, so the extra time gave us a chance we were rarely allowed due to the random scheduling system that left best friends in different first periods or the same wise guy duo in the back of every English class. The walkway during lunch was also unsupervised, no teachers keeping guard the way they did in the hallway, no coaches on watch, no “hands off” reminders. Mrs. Andrews’s girls walked toward those boys, arms swinging. We pretended they meant nothing to us, that we hadn’t been writing their names in the notes we passed during third period or that we hadn’t written our first names next to their last names in our most sophisticated cursive just to see how it might look. Some girls stopped to talk to their boyfriends. Others, the lucky ones, heard their names being called from a huddle of boys. The rest of us carried on to lunch, hoping that tomorrow might be our day.

I was in a category of my own.

***

Since the lock-down of the gym’s back doors and a coach on guard between bells, the boys had been eyeing me in secret, aggressive ways. After all, I had been the x in their algebraic desire, and now it was as if all the answers they had once been able to easily flip to in the back of the book, those pages that had made it easy, had been ripped out. In Mrs. Richmond’s class, we had been learning about rational numbers (2, 3, 5) and irrational numbers (3.14159 . . . ). Rational numbers were created when I, one, plus one of them, one, added up to a clear sum, but when the constant was removed, the sum became an irrational one, like pi, their lust going on to infinity.

It could not go on forever.

The pre-lunch walk to the cafeteria had shifted to one of dread. I hurried past the boys, ushered through their line by leers and lewd remarks.

***

That day, Mrs. Andrews let us out even earlier than usual, and I felt the pressure of those extra minutes. By adding five minutes to the equation, the operator was no longer an addition of two constants (their aggression + my avoidance), but rather a multiplication of them. As I pushed through the double doors, I looked toward the gym to notice that the boys’ backs, even their shoulders were turned against us as if in collusion. Later, I would come to think of it the way Coach Farnsworth had explained the Alamo during Texas History—an ambush.

I sped up, my head down, my attention pressed toward the sidewalk. The boys stayed turned from me, hushed, and I thought for a moment that they had tired of me, that I could finally get by.

I didn’t get by.

Jeff T. was behind me, grabbing my arms and knocking my books and purse on the sidewalk before pulling me into the boys’ bathroom. No one ever used that bathroom; it was too dark, too dank, too dirty. I stumbled backwards into the stench of urine and fear, his open mouth on mine, his hands under my shirt. Other boys followed, at least ten of them, behind me, beside me, their bodies in my face as they grabbed, pulled, shoved tongues in my mouth and hands under my shirt, unlatching my bra, taking turns holding my arms behind my back while another’s sweaty palm splayed over my mouth to cover my screaming. I could not breathe, either from a hand over my mouth or a mouth over my mouth or the suffocation from the stale urine and released aggression.

A window above the door was cracked open, a sliver of light I kept my eyes on, perhaps to separate myself, exist on the other side of the door, exist in two places at once. I struggled against shadows and my own body’s inability to shut itself. Somehow, I broke free but only threw open the door before more hands and arms were pulling me back into the sweaty circle. My refusal, my near escape had angered their assault, incited an even more egregious attack. They were taking what they had been denied. After all, I had already given it to them.

This round, as one or two held my arms behind my back and others held my legs in a wide stance with their own black-tennis-shoed feet, hands went down my pants, my panties, and then fingers, one hand at a time, were inside me.

***

I do not remember getting free from those boys. Maybe that’s why when I think of it, I do not exist in two places at once—I’m nowhere but in that bathroom, struggling.

I do remember that the punishment for the boys in the bathroom was running extra miles at practice.

Some of them, I knew, loved to run.

***

Thirty years have passed, and I still dry my hands before flipping on the switch of the disposal.

***

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Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, and more. Her memoir, The Way We Weren't, will be published by Counterpoint/Soft Skull in Summer 2015. More from this author →