Notes from a Self-Investigation
Scene of the Crime: Kelly’s House
Port Chester, New York
They want me to take off my shirt.
There are three of us: Me, Sally, Kelly. We are playing a game of truth or dare on the shag rug in Kelly’s basement, a spacious, brown-paneled room with a fully stocked bar, a color TV for playing Atari, and a fitness area off limits to anyone but Kelly’s sixteen-year-old brother, Seamus.
This is my first time at Kelly’s house, which in the fifth grade is akin to winning the lottery. Until this.
“What do you mean?” I ask. I bite a hangnail off my index finger, then stop, thinking this is unattractive behavior.
“Take your shirt off and run around the backyard,” Kelly repeats. She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. I notice Sally pulling the Pepto Bismol bottle out of her Le Sport Sac. She shakes it vigorously, then takes a swig of the creamy pink stuff and nods in Kelly’s direction.
“Can I change my choice to truth?” I ask.
Kelly shakes her head, then runs her fingers through her mane of silky blond hair. I watch with envy. I would kill for that hair. “No rewinds. You gotta do the dare or get lost.”
This was only my second week in “The Gang,” the popular fifth-grade girl clique in the suburban New York town where I grew up. I had already paid for the T-shirt with the iridescent iron-on letters that read, “The Gang.” I had already dumped my former best friend, Melissa, for not being cool. I had already stolen a Bugs Bunny patch from Woolworths upon Kelly’s orders, and toilet papered the librarian’s car. So what was the big deal about taking off my shirt and running around someone’s backyard?
Still, I just sat there.
Kelly smiled like Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat, the stuffed version I had gotten the previous year at Disney World.
“I’m getting bored,” she said.
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
Sally and Kelly snickered as I pulled off my Andy Gibb T-shirt. I was probably the palest thing they had ever seen. Unlike the recent, collective blossoming of so many girls in my grade (including Kelly who had her period and showed us the tampons to prove it), my chest offered nothing more than a barren landscape highlighted by two immobilized red ants.
“Now get out there and run in circles!” Sally yelled. She pushed my hesitant body toward the open sliding glass door. Once in the backyard, I crossed my arms over my chest and shivered. From behind the glass, Sally made a circular gesture with her hand and mouthed the word “RUN!”
It took me a moment, but I obeyed. Shirtless, I ran circles around Kelly’s backyard while she and Sally fell over each other in hysterics just behind the glass door. As I saw them laughing, something inside of me shifted; something important. Look what I can do, I realized, I can make my new friends, the coolest girls in the grade, laugh. I started to run faster then, putting my arms straight out to the sides and soaring like an airplane. Kelly clapped. I kept this going for several minutes, circle after dizzying circle, until I came around and noticed a third person at the sliding glass door. At first I didn’t recognize the figure, but then, as my run slowed to a jog, I could make out the razor-stubbled chin, the lips that were now open and half smiling. It was Kelly’s brother, Seamus. He waved.
I froze, one hand over each of my little red ants. The only other time I could recall being this embarrassed was the previous summer when someone pulled the string on my Snoopy halter top in Camp Trupin’s dining hall. The top fell to the floor and left me so traumatized that a counselor had to carry me, crying, out of the room. This time, however, there was no one to rescue me, and I thought I was going to throw up. When Kelly finally opened the door, her face a splotchy pink from laughter, I grabbed my shirt from her hands and ran straight to the bathroom.
What happened next exactly escapes me. I wish I knew. Maybe I laughed it off in that hideous green-tiled bathroom. More likely I cried, but just a little. This is the problem with memory; it gives, but only so far. Still, I have a hunch that this experience of being the victim, of being humiliated, resulted in some significant rewiring of my brain that day. I’m not sure what it looked like before, but now the connections added up to something like: Do want they want, make ‘em laugh, and you’ll be fine.
My new internal setting: survival mode.
Potential Motive #1: Fear
Here’s a thought I can’t shake: We have a choice. We always have a choice. Even at age 11. I didn’t have to do the deed. But I did it, whatever it was. Again and again and again.
My bathroom hypothesis sound like a good one, yes? Fear seems like a logical reason to be a follower. But that’s all it is: a hypothesis. Maybe there was something more to it. Maybe it was the lack of a strong parental presence that made me follow. Or lack of religion. Or lack of boobs. Certainly some sort of deficit. Still, nothing feels wholly right as an explanation.
It’s funny, but for the longest time, I barely even thought about my Gang days, a phenomenon Freud and my psychiatrist father would label repression. This unflattering part of my history did not return to me until 2003, when I was in my early thirties and living with my boyfriend (now husband) in the quaint seaside town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. The past arrived one morning as though someone were whispering in my ear, rousing me from sleep with the phrase:
Kelly O’Connor was queen of the Jews.
Instinctually, I sat up and grabbed a pen. I wrote the line down and stared at it. Where did that come from? I wondered. And why now, after all these years?
I decided to blame Tobias Wolff. The evening before, I was reading This Boy’s Life, the chapter where Tobias and some other boys tease a kid named Arthur, “the uncoolist boy in the sixth grade, maybe the whole camp.” And then the next morning, bingo. Kelly and the Gang came knocking, setting off a quest to understand my childhood self that has plagued me now for more than a decade.
Kelly and the Gang had once been such a big part of my life. Or maybe what I mean is more like, the Gang was what broke my life in parts. There was the part where I was the independent, unscathed kid who adored her mother and father. Who had no shame or self-consciousness or fear.
And then there was the rest.
Scene of the Crime:
Various locations including Pepsico, Ridge Street Elementary School, Vice Principal’s office
Kelly was a cunning leader who never actually participated in the bad deeds that always seemed to land at least one of us in trouble. She pulled the strings, and we performed.
There was the time Sally, Mindy and I were playing around the brook that ran behind Kelly’s house.
“I’m bored,” Kelly said. It was something she said often, always followed by a restless sigh. “Let’s cross the water and have an adventure.”
This is a bad idea, I thought. The rocks were slippery. At least once we each fell in up to our calves, soaking our pant legs. I was nervous, thinking for sure that I was going to fall in and drown and look like an idiot. (Years later, this fear would morph into a real fear of death, but for now it was simply a fear of looking stupid in front of others while dying.) When we reached the other side, we climbed up a steep dirt hill, stumbling and grabbing onto tree branches or shrubs whenever possible. Finally, after I was convinced we were thoroughly lost, we arrived back in some sort of gleaming white, corporate civilization. To our surprise, we found ourselves standing in front of the headquarters of Pepsico, makers of Pepsi, my family’s drink of choice at the time.
“Let’s go in and check it out,” Kelly decided. Although I didn’t feel good about this idea— it was a Tuesday afternoon and people would be working—I followed.
First, we visited the employee fitness room, playing on the machines and picking up weights until a staff member ordered us out. Then we wandered over to the main building. Kelly thought it would be better to go in a side door, rather than the main door where someone might see us. Fancying ourselves as Charlie’s Angels, we scaled the building until we found a side door that opened, which was when Kelly hesitated, announcing, “I’ll stay outside and keep watch.”
Once inside, Mindy, Sally and I found ourselves standing at the entrance of a long hallway. The three of us walked quietly down the corridor, glancing into the offices on either side, occasionally catching the eye of an employee who looked at us with a curious expression.
We saw the soda machine halfway down the hall. We searched our pockets for coins, but no one had any. Mindy pushed a button anyway and a can of Pepsi come out.
“Cool,” she said. She pushed the button again. Another can appeared.
“Oh my God, it’s friggin’ free!” We were laughing nervously now, nudging each other with elbows, pushing one another out of the way to press the button. All I could think of was how impressed Kelly would be. We grabbed as many cans as possible, trying to carry them all by sticking them under our arms or in our windbreaker pockets, but they kept falling. Then Sally walked over to the nearby metal garbage can. She dumped the garbage out onto the ground, removed the dirty plastic bag, and held it open for us.
Walking out with a garbage bag of clinking cans, I suppose we looked somewhat suspicious. We had almost accomplished our crime and reached the exit when a squat, bald man in a suit emerged from his office and asked what we were doing.
“Getting some soda?” Sally replied.
She attempted to run around the man but he grabbed her by the arm, causing her to drop the garbage bag and our precious stash of soda cans onto the floor. A security guard arrived and we were taken to an office where another overweight businessman joined us for a lecture on the cons of stealing. We nodded our heads in feigned agreement and appreciation: “Of course…yes…we’re sorry. Never again.”
A security guard escorted us outside and warned us never to return to the premises. We looked around briefly for Kelly, but she was gone.
That same month we also expelled two Gang members, bringing our numbers down to eight. Wendy was the first to go. We had decided – after a creepy evening with a Ouija board – that she was possessed by Satan. It didn’t help that her skin was olive, a shade of green that Kelly then decided was the devil’s skin color. Wasn’t Satan’s skin color red? I thought. But I kept quiet. What was important was that we had a logical reason for our cruelty; that we could rationalize our behavior as we called our former friend ‘devil woman’ and tied her up to a bench next to the soccer field, where we left her until dark.
Then we moved on to Andrea.
Someone had decided that she was a lesbian. And lesbians were certainly not allowed in the Gang. According to Kelly, Andrea could no longer sit with us at lunch, and we had to torture her as much as possible. In the fifth grade, such torture techniques consisted of ignoring her, making faces at her across the classroom, and writing nasty comments about her on the bathroom wall, such as “Andrea loves lesbos.” Kelly also suggested that I break into Andrea’s locker, and everyone agreed that this was an excellent idea. Although I had some doubts about this mission, the sense of importance that came with my new assignment outweighed any reservations.
On the scheduled break-in day, someone passed me a note in science class that read “Today, 3:45 pm,” with the locker combination scribbled next to it. Throughout the day, the plans were released to me in the same way—mysteriously—in brief, anonymous notes and whispers from people I hardly knew. I was told that Sally and Kelly would be my backup, keeping watch from the hallway above, right across from the library. “If there’s any danger, listen for the whistle,” someone had written on my notebook.
At 3:45 pm, the hallway with the fifth through seventh grade lockers was silent, except for the sound of my footsteps and breathing. When I found Andrea’s locker, my hand was trembling so much that I missed the last number of the combination five times. “Fanabla,” I whispered. I considered giving up and simply going home, but then remembered Sally and Kelly were watching. I wiped my clammy hands on my pants and tried again. This time the locker swung open.
I stared inside then, realizing that I had no idea what to do next. There were notebooks and textbooks, centerfolds of Rick Springfield. Some Hello Kitty stickers. I decided I had to take something—proof of my accomplishment. I reached down for the stickers and was considering a Rick Springfield picture too when a jacket brushed my hand.
What was her jacket still doing here, I wondered. Hadn’t she gone home?
“What are you doing?” It was Andrea.
Funny, I hadn’t heard any whistling.
With no good explanation prepared for why my head would be stuck halfway inside her locker, I replied, “Nothing?”
Then, nearly knocking Andrea over, I turned around and ran. I ran down the long hallway, around a corner, past the empty fifth-grade classrooms. I ran up the stairs, to the spot outside the library where I thought my comrades were waiting and keeping watch. But they weren’t there. I paused a moment, leaning over to catch my breath, and noticed Mrs. Lane, the librarian whose car I had recently toilet papered. Even at this hour she was still in the library, shaking her head and mumbling something under her breath while cleaning up what looked like a mess of books that someone had dumped on the floor. For a moment I felt sorry for her. I considered offering to help, but I couldn’t let her see me. So instead, I ran once more, finally ending up in the girl’s bathroom by the cafeteria, where I waited nervously, maybe an hour or so, before sneaking out a side door and running home.
The next day I was called into the vice principal’s office—a nebbishy man by the name of Mr. Rabinowitz. Someone in the eighth grade had recently blown up his fish tank with an M-80.
“Why were you in Andrea’s locker?” he asked me.
Andrea was in the room as well, sitting in the chair to my left. We didn’t look at each other.
“It was a dare,” I explained.
“If your friends dared you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” His fingers were pressed together, prayer-like, under his chin. He had a smug look on his face as though he has just made a truly original point that would change my life forever.
I shook my head no, although looking back, I probably would have.
He stared at me in silence. Then he picked up the telephone and called my mother.
I was suspended for three days. There was no additional punishment at home, which now seems odd to me, but I suppose, as the youngest of my parents’ three children, they were simply exhausted by the time my preadolescence arrived. My mother only yelled at me, accusing me of being the “black sheep” of the family and oy vey, how my two older sisters never caused such trouble. My father simply ignored me for three days, sucking on his pipe and staring off at the TV set when I was in the room. I probably should have cared, but I didn’t. My parents, the ones who had always been the shining stars in my world, had now dimmed in the shadow of my friends. I waited for the phone to ring, I waited for the accolades, the praise, for the Gang’s love to nourish and protect me.
Evidence Supporting Motive #1/Fear
I learned about “identification with the aggressor” in graduate school. It’s also called the Stockholm Syndrome, after the behavior of air passengers taken hostage by terrorists at the Stockholm Airport in 1973. When these passengers were rescued, they came out praising and adoring their murderous captors.
Similar examples come from Nazi concentration camps, where some prisoners were placed in charge of others. According to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, these “Kapos” would wear discarded pieces of Nazi uniforms and often abuse their fellow victims. As the theory goes, they were unconsciously identifying with the aggressors, to ward off the troubling awareness of their own vulnerability. According to the Stockholm Syndrome, people do things like that in extremis.
Evidence against Motive #1/Fear
Then again, there is a story my eighty-three-year-old father likes to tell, which he calls the “greatest triumph of his life.” The first time he shared it with me I was twenty-eight and he was sixty-eight. He had recently broken his silence and started talking about a past that included watching the Nazis march as s child, restarting a life in Palestine and losing a sister at Auschwitz.
We were sitting in the den at the house in New York—my father in his leopard rocking chair and me in my mother’s orange corduroy swivel chair. My father stared at the television as he spoke. “There was a group of boys at my school – they were my friends once. But then they became Nazi youth. Really mean boys,” he said. “They followed me home one day. One of them, the leader, called me ‘Jew boy.’ He told me I had a big Jew nose.” My father paused here. He was smiling slightly, his pipe smoke hovering between us like a cloud.
“Were you scared?” I asked, assuming the answer must be yes.
“Nah,” he scoffed while waving his hand at me in a manner that said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
“I wasn’t scared…You know what I did? I spit in the leader’s face, right in his face, and then I ran like hell!” He leaned back in his chair, reflective, nodding.
I nodded too, absorbing his pipe smoke and his story with a mixture of awe, and guilt.
Possible Motive #2: Genetic Defect
The gene promoting bravery in my family skipped a generation. This is less a motive and more avoidance of blame due to biological circumstances beyond my control.
Relationship for Further Investigation: Sally
There is a legend about my friendship with Sally that goes back to me finding a nickel on the street outside her house when I was five.
“Look,” I said to my mother as I bent down to pick up the coin. “This must be Sally’s.”
We rang her doorbell. Sally’s mother appeared first, followed by Sally.
“Do you want to tell her?” my mother asked.
I was suddenly shy, so my mother began speaking. “Amy found this nickel on the curb over there. She thought it was Sally’s and wanted to return it.”
The mothers smiled at each other, as though sharing a secret joke. Sally grabbed the nickel.
“What do you say, Sally?”
We studied each other. Sally’s brown hair was divided into pigtails, the tight, painful-looking kind. My hair was cut short, like a boy’s. My mom had it cut off because it was too knotty to brush. I remember thinking Sally was beautiful. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be her friend. But she was in Mrs. Redman’s kindergarten class; I was in Mrs. Wein’s. Our friendship would have to wait.
During our pre-adolescent years and beyond, I spent more time at Sally’s house than anywhere else, maybe even more than my own. She had a dog, Sandy, a large Collie/Great Dane mix. Sandy liked to hump people. She tried to hump me more than once, and the dog was so heavy I could never get up. Sally and I both laughed until we cried.
We made a game of dressing up the dog, contorting her dog limbs so they fit into dresses and cheerleading outfits and Sally’s brother’s football jerseys. We took photos. There was always bologna in the fridge and often silverfish scampering around the sinks and bathroom. I freaked out, but Sally only hit the bugs with a rolled-up Time magazine. They didn’t flatten, but magically disintegrated.
We played another game where she was the evil piano teacher and I was the student. She didn’t actually have a piano, but there was an organ in the living room, so we used that. She taught me songs from Fiddler on the Roof, and made me sing along. “A way above my head…I see the strangest sight. A fiddler on the roof…who’s up there day and night.”
“No, No, No,” Sally yelled, slamming upon my head the rolled-up magazine she recently used to a kill a silverfish. “Sing it with passion!”
I sang it again, with passion.
In yet another game, Sally dressed me up as a boy. She did this by tucking my now-long hair up under a baseball cap. We took the football jersey off the dog and put it on me, then added a pair of sunglasses and voila! I was a boy.
We walked up the street to the elementary school where some real boys were playing baseball. We sat along the edge of the field until the game ended. Then a boy named Alex jogged over.
“Hey Alex,” Sally said. “This is my cousin, Abe.”
Abe? Is she serious?
“He’s from Israel,” she added.
“Shalom,” I said, in a deep voice, looking down.
“What are you guys doing now?” Alex asked.
“Sure,” Sally said. We walked to the playground, where some other fifth graders were hanging out. Sally and Alex walked ahead of me.
At the playground, Sally and Alex flirted. As a boy, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, so I sat on a swing and waited.
“Hey, Alex is gonna walk us home,” Sally said after about twenty minutes.
Back on her front porch, they made out, tongues and all, while I sat on the steps.
When Alex left, he said, “See you later Herschel…” to me.
Inside, Sally laughed so hard about our little masquerade she nearly choked on a piece of bologna. I smiled, even laughed a little too, although I couldn’t quite decide if I enjoyed this charade or not.
The thing I remember most about Sally’s house, however, was the silence. Her father was there, and then he wasn’t. It was the first time I heard the word “divorce.” I recall actually seeing her dad only once, at the kitchen table. He was wearing a robe and smoking a pipe, a handsome man with curly salt and pepper hair and chiseled features – his nose in particular, a perfect specimen, like Sally’s.
When we were twelve, Sally’s older sister left for college, and then her brother moved out to live with his father. Now it was just Sally and her mother, who was spending more and more time at her boyfriend’s house.
One afternoon Sally was furious at her mother. What her mother did is now lost on me, but it was enough to send Sally into a rage, cueing her stomach issues. She took a swig of Pepto, then wiped the pink film from her lips with a sleeve before reaching for her mother’s cosmetics bag. Sally wrote with her mother’s make up all over the mirror. First with the lipstick: I hate you! Then the eyeliner: You Suck! Her anger expressed with tools typically used to cover up the truth, but there it was in black and red and blue and pink, in Sally’s bubble-like scrawl.
Possible motive #3: Parents (bad role models/abandonment/ lack of discipline/too much discipline/bad genes/etc.)
One always must always weigh the possibility that our mother and/or father contributed in part to our dysfunction and bad choices; however, I’m not comfortable fully embracing this theory now that I am a parent myself.
Location for further investigation: My childhood bedroom
When I was 11, I had my room painted pink. My older sister Jackie’s room was also pink, but she had left her ceiling the original white. I’m not sure if I felt I had to outdo her, or if I just wanted to live inside a Pepto Bismol bottle (a tribute to Sally) as my shag carpet was also pink, but that was the color in which I shrouded myself for seventeen years.
My mother hired Dennis, the painter, to do the job, and I immediately fell in love with him. My crushes were like that in those days: rampant and all consuming, as though I had just discovered a male species existed at all.
Dennis looked a lot like Davy Jones from the Monkees. He winked at me and said, “Hey kid,” and that was all it took. After school I’d come straight home, bring some Gang members with me, bribing them with the promise of chocolate donuts and Dennis without his shirt on. We’d giggle, but no one seemed to care about Dennis the way I did. I suppose these girls didn’t need to have crushes; they had real relationships, or at least semblances of relationships. The boys in our grade—the cute ones, the cool ones, the ones like Alex and Seth, Mitch and Mike—desired these girls.
I, on the other hand, didn’t even exist to these boys. They didn’t talk to me. They didn’t want me, no matter how often or how close I stood to Kelly and Sally.
Potential Motive #4: It was about the boys
This, I suspect, is a biggie.
Potential Motive #5: It was about the color
According to color theorists, pink is thought to have a calming effect on mood. A shade known as “drunk-tank pink” is sometimes used in prison cells to calm inmates. While pink’s calming effect has been demonstrated, researchers of color psychology believe this effect occurs only during initial exposure. When used in prisons, inmates often become even more agitated once they become accustomed to the color.
Scene of the Crime:
Christmas break, 1980, sixth grade
Sally takes the final swig from her Pepto Bismol bottle, then washes it out so we can use it for a game of Spin the Bottle. Mindy’s parents are away for a couple of days, having left Mindy and her two brothers at home with the housekeeper, who pays little attention to us.
The usual crew of boys is there: Alex, Seth, Mitch and Mike, plus a few others from the neighborhood who have caught wind of the game and stopped over. All the boys want to be with Kelly and Sally, and they cheat and nudge the bottle slightly if it doesn’t point where they want it to go. I grow restless as other girls take turns disappearing inside Mindy’s closet to make out with one boy or another. Finally, most likely out of boredom, Kelly insists that a boy named Adam play fair and make out with me. I am immediately terrified. Not just of the idea that I will have to French kiss a boy and he will discover that I had no idea what I am doing. But I am also terrified of being in dark, enclosed spaces, and I make the mistake of sharing this information.
The moment Adam and I sit down on the closet floor, Kelly slams the door shut and she and Mindy stand in front of it laughing. Panicked, I attempt to open the door with one hand while pulling the wheel of Mindy’s roller skate out from beneath my left butt cheek with the other.
“Relax,” Adam says, sliding one arm across my waist, trying to pull me toward him. I go with it, but I am beginning to hyperventilate.
“I think we’re running out of air,” I say.
“Don’t be silly, look…” he points to the crack of light seeping in through the foot of the door.
The next thing I know his lips are on mine and his warm tongue darts recklessly into my teeth, the roof of my mouth. My tongue–familiar only with talking, eating and licking envelopes at this point—sits there as though in shock. His hand begins moving up my waist, then grabbing for something on my chest, where my left breast should be. Despite the fact that there is nothing to grab, he keeps at it, and soon he is almost drooling on my chin. While I am aware of what he is doing, most of my attention is focused on what is occurring outside the closet door. I hear laughter, the low hum of Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” in the background. And then something being dragged. Is it furniture? It ends with a loud thud against the closet door and I stand up immediately, my head tangled in Mindy’s clothes, my hand on the doorknob. But the door won’t budge.
They leave us in the closet for what feels like twenty minutes. When we are finally released, I walk past everyone without saying a word. I don’t want anyone to see my tears. I am down the stairs and almost out Mindy’s front door when I hear Kelly’s voice:
“If you leave now, you can’t come back.”
I freeze. For a moment, I picture myself just walking out and leaving my Gang behind. Would I be OK? Who would be my friends? The thought relieves and terrifies me.
“Come on Amy,” Kelly says, as though she knows exactly what will happen next. “We need your help.”
When I return upstairs, the girls sandwich me between them, each one with an arm around one of my shoulders.
“BFF’s?” Kelly asks, squeezing hard.
“Sure,” I say flatly. “Best friends forever.”
Before we leave Mindy’s house that day, we tie her five-year old brother Brian up to the stair railing with tube socks. We try to make him eat a Milk Bone dog biscuit, which he spits on the floor. I don’t remember why we did this. I only remember finally running with Kelly and Sally from the house and thinking, for the most part, it had been a pretty good day.
Thoughts inspired by tying young boy up with socks/forcing him to eat dog biscuit:
My son Ethan is about the same age Brian was when we tied him to the railing. No wonder I’m nervous to leave him with the thirteen-year-old babysitter from next door, even though she seems nice.
Ethan recently started kindergarten. One afternoon when I picked him up, he walked me through the familiar linoleum-tiled, fluorescent-lit hallways. He proudly showed me the library; the art room; the gym where he played Tag earlier.
“Very nice,” I said, while feeling haunted by it all.
When we left, I looked back over my shoulder, relieved that my turn was over. Maybe it’s easier for boys, I hoped. But I’d already witnessed the dynamics on the playground; The subtle bullying and ganging up, the way alliances quickly shift without reason. When Ethan is the one being cornered, I feel the nerves in my body heighten. I picture a cat arching its back; the protective mother watching and weighing when the time has come to intervene. It’s a trickier decision than you might think; intervene too early, and you risk looking silly and incapable of letting your child settle things for himself. When Ethan is the bully, however, I do not hesitate.
I know our playground days together are numbered. I won’t always be there, and that frightens me. For right now, however, all I can do is run my hand through Ethan’s wavy hair and make a wish that the trials of growing up for him will be fleeting, and few.
Conclusion, including an Imagined Interrogation with my Childhood Self:
And so there you have it. The Gang disintegrated by seventh grade, when Kelly’s parents sent her to a Catholic school in another town. Eventually the O’Connor clan packed up their liquor, their Atari and fitness equipment, and moved away.
The rest of us limped our way through high school, some of us with more noticeable scars than others. Mindy developed a drug problem. Andrea was in and out of hospitals battling anorexia. Sally’s Pepto habit got worse before it got better. I’m not saying all this was the Gang’s fault. Maybe it was, at least in part. But that’s a different question for a different investigation.
As for my own inquiry, I’ve reached a dead end; trying to understand one’s earlier self feels like wrestling a ghost. Despite years spent pouring over the evidence, the suspects, the potential motives, I have no major breakthrough to report. Still, in a last desperate exercise, I decide to interrogate my ten-year-old self.
This idea comes to me while I’m splayed out on an acupuncture table, needles in, acupuncturist out, working on another patient. A lamp radiates heat only inches from my head. It reminds me of those interrogation scenes in old movies, when they shine the light in the suspect’s face; no doubt this is where the inspiration came from.
But just how to do this? I wonder. First I need to conjure an image of myself. I recall a photograph from that era – a young me, with half the freckles I have now and a Dorothy Hamill haircut. I’m sitting on the orange corduroy chair in our living room in New York. I’m wearing feety pajamas, and have a clarinet across my lap. The girl looks so sweet and so full of potential that I realize I have entered dangerous emotional territory; I start to cry. I’m still on the acupuncture table. I can’t move my arm to wipe the tears because my flesh is dotted with needles and I fear I might mess up my chi. I pray no one comes in.
“Are you OK?” the little girl asks. She points to a box of tissues next to her father’s pipe stand.
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” I say. I blow my nose, then turn the heat lamp to face her. In the deepest voice I can summon I say: “Where were you on the afternoon of October 12, 1979?”
The girl cowers away from the lamp. “Do you mind? That’s hot.”
I turn it off. “Sorry. Now answer the question please.”
She looks at me, then up toward the ceiling, perplexed.
“I don’t know. How could I know? It’s only 1978.”
“Oh. Right. Well, you will be there. On a dare, you will take off your shirt and run around Kelly O’Conner’s backyard and pledge your allegiance to the Gang and do whatever they tell you to do and destroy friendships for no reason and completely lose your sense of self and confidence, which you won’t find again for like another thirty years, until you’re in your early forties. You’ll make a bunch of bad decisions along the way because of it too. That day in 1979 will change everything, forever. Do you understand?”
She laughs and shakes her head. “I’m never going to be in my early forties. That’s so old.”
“Trust me. You will.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Because I’m you, age forty-three.”
She twirls the clarinet like a baton as she considers this. “Well, you look like you turned out pretty much OK. I mean, I do. I mean, you look pretty normal.” She shakes her head, confused.
We’re getting off track, so I try to steer us in another direction. “I’m OK, I mean, you’re OK now, I guess. I’m here because I’m trying to understand why I did it…why I was a follower and not a better person with a higher moral conscious?”
I get down on one knee and put my face closer to hers. “Tell me, are you happy right now? I mean, do you need more attention from your parents? Or the boys? Is it about the boys? You will grow breasts one day, you know.”
She looks at my chest and smiles. “Kind of.”
“Listen,” the girl adds, “I’m not trying to be mean or anything, but I really need to practice my clarinet.”
“OK,” I say.
She plays an audibly painful version of When the Saints Come Marching In, then removes her lips from the mouthpiece. “You’re still here?”
I nod. “You may as well know this: you’re going to give up that clarinet in another month or so. Then your parents will give you piano lessons, which you’ll do for a while but you’ll give that up too and regret it later when you can only play the theme from “Mash” and a tiny bit of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
She looks a little freaked out now. We sit in silence for a minute.
The girl glances at the clock. “Well, it’s just about time for ‘Happy Days.’ I’m going to go watch it in my parents’ room, OK, so I can’t really talk any more. I’ll see you later, maybe?”
“Thanks for listening to me,” I say.
She gets up and cheerfully waves goodbye.
I love this kid. I want to scoop her away and rescue her from growing up. But she’s already gone.