Ann Marie’s mom died. She’s the first person I know who has done it. At her funeral mass we knelt, then stood, then knelt, then stood, then did the hokey-pokey and turned ourselves around. Expressing your faith with reverence, chants, and synchronized choreography – that’s what it’s all about. My dad told me Catholics aren’t real Christian because they worship Mary and idols and The Democrats, but at least they are New Testament devotees, my dad agrees they got that right.
Sermons about The Wrath of God was something our grandparents listened to. Hip Christians prefer something more in vogue – love and lambs, and peace that passes understanding. We have the Old Testament, but beside the Psalms of Praise, it’s usualy just referenced- or sampled. It seems by the time God got around to write the sequel His character transformed a bit- or he just mellowed when His Son took on the big project for the family business.
My mom was washing the dishes and looking out the window to the backyard where Ann Marie and I were playing hopscotch when I ran in for Otter Pops. I opened the freezer then huffed, disappointed. “Mo—-m,” I started; she cut me off, “Ann Marie’s mom died last night”. “How” I asked. “Cancer”. I could see Ann Maire looking back at us through the window above the kitchen sink. Not sure how to respond I said, “Okay”, then walked back outside and gave Ann Marie the last Alexander the Grape; I took the house key I keep around my neck, our front door locks automatically, and tossed it into one of the squares. I didn’t know how to console her, so I thought the best thing to do is to just keep playing hopscotch.
Ann Marie lives next door. Her dad is a cop and works at night and sleeps during the day; their house is now dark and smells of old magazines and toothpaste. My parents are including her in our family. My dad has always done this, reach out to people who are going through a hard time, when he does, I think about the run-down farm we visited that he lived at for a while as a little boy. An uncle took him in after his mom was murdered and his dad was away in the Navy. This uncle didn’t seem to have much, and what he did have, food and living space, was enough to maintain his family. When I visited the farm it looked like an adventure- a day adventure, maybe two. But not a place to stay, not a place to live. The forest, full of skinny trees the country folk refer to as the sticks, invade the usable land and cramped outbuildings. Stepping a few yards in, following a rabbit or quail, it was easy to lose sight of the farm. It was easy to image the trees were gnarled, white fingers reaching up from the damp ground to snatch you and pull you in further. When panic starts to creep up your gullet there was always a cousin, or aunt or uncle, coming out to call your name and guide you back home for supper.
Calling out to those that have lost their way is one of the lessons I learned from my dad and the country folk. Others include: to speak only when you have something to say, you are what you do, help when you can, and give what you have: even if it’s not much, even if it’s as simple as your last grape popsicle.
Ann is sitting next to me in the backseat at the drive-in while we wait for Superman: The Movie to start. When I show her my new cross-eyed look I’ve been practicing, she slugs me in the arm and says, “You look like an idiot.” Ann Marie has always been a slugger, but her slugs have been getting a little harder lately. This one caught me between the muscle and the bone in my left arm.
My mom is insistent I find some boys to play with, but Ann Marie is tougher than any boy I know. She fights, she swaggers, she picks at her scabs until they bleed. None of these characteristics impress me, but I do like the way her ponytail swings in a circle as she does her windmill-underhand-throw from the pitcher’s mound in her softball games. My dad says she’s a tom-boy: a girl that likes boy things. Everybody seems fine with that, and, in fact they all kind of encourage it- which is kind of confusing.
I got a terrific Christmas gift- Superman Underoos. It’s underwear and a costume and an opportunity. I run around the living room to the backyard, an exhibitionist with superpowers. It’s liberating. My brother Aaron is wearing his Spiderman Underoos and pretends to cast webs from his wrists. He runs around the house making web shooting noises and jumping off furniture. My mom scolds him, warning him not to break an arm; it’s hard to stop a boy transformed by his imagination and brightly colored underpants. And why would you?
I don’t limit my powers to comic book restrictions. I experiment in performance art. I’m The Man of Steal lip-syncing to Crazy Little Thing Called Love. I’m Superman saving a school bus full of children, then, in red underwear and my dad’s cowboy boots, I break into a celebratory impromptu barn dance- clogging on the back patio. I make the most of this opportunity endorsed by my parents, though, there is a different TV superhero I find more engaging.
If you save the used toilet rolls, slit them on one side, they stay securely on your wrists. Aluminum foil shaped as a boomerang fits nicely on your head.
I go to the backyard to spin. I spin and spin; the sound of the tap of my feet in my dad’s cowboy boots on the cement slab in our background feels me with power and potential. Spotting forward, I whip my head around, waiting to be transformed. The intention isn’t to be transformed into a woman, but into something brave and striking, and fancy. I run around the backyard until the red elastic on my underwear is sweaty. I use my magic bracelets to repel imaginary bullets from imaginary bad guys and bullies. I make the gun noises the same as every boy everywhere does. I rest my hands on my hips, then, using my lady voice I say “ththtop right there you bad guyz”. I pretend to throw my magic lasso – then I freeze.
Like every good superhero I can since something is wrong. My mom is staring at me from the kitchen window above the sink. Is she wondering what I’m doing? Or does she know? My instincts tell me that my secret identity needs to be protected. I cast off the boomerang/headband and pretend to fly- I lower my voice “Up, up, and away”- around the backyard.
I used to have a recurring dream; I won a raffle from a cereal box label. Linda Carter, (In her boomerang tiara, golden eagle boddice, and calf-high red boots) and I have breakfast. She sits across from me with her bowl of cornflakes and smiles, while I tell her about Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Ann Marie stops coming around for a while. I’m nine, she’s twelve, and she’s becoming meaner. My dad is taking a psychology class and explains the five stages of grief to me. Ann Marie seems to be stuck at anger. My mom still makes an extra sandwich and brings it to her house and washes some of her clothes, but we’re not allowed to play together for a while. She, as my dad said, knocked out my lights. My dad told me to hit her back the next time and said I have to stand up to bullies, but I didn’t, I don’t, not because she’s a girl, that’s an excuse. My other excuse is Matthew 5:39 but when I turned the other cheek, her left hook was as good as her right. The real reason I don’t? I am terrified of confrontation, particularly confrontation in arm’s length.
Now I understand, but bullies terrified me then and for years. I had thought, if I was just nice, and kind, and Christian, I wouldn’t be bullied. Ann Marie, I figured, was a one-off. I didn’t have that fire in my belly that makes boys, and some girls, mad enough to commit to violence and disregard the cost. Risking a fist slamming into my mouth verses the reward of standing up to a bully didn’t seem worth it. I was wrong. It’s worth it.
The Seven Stages of G… over thirty-five years.
Stage two Denial – Dear Jesus, I can’t be… I like Linda Carter and Dolly Parton and they both of big boobies.
Stage three Anger– Every boy at my Jr. Highschool should die in one big bus accident. All of them, except Scott. Scott smiled at me yesterday. Oh Lord, just as David asked in Psalms- let me dip my feet in the blood of my enemies. Let my dogs lap up their blood…, except Scott. Save Scott.
Stage Four Bargaining– God, make me normal. Make me a normal high school boy and I will become a missionary. I will dedicate my life to feeding the poor and preaching the gospel and sing only Christian pop songs at my concerts.
Stage five Depression– I could use my dad’s shot gun or jump off a building, but that seems messy. I’m not going to take sleeping pills; I heard that’s the way women kill themselves. I don’t want a feminine death, that would be to on-point. I’m going to stop eating. If I’m going to do this, then, I’ll at least go out with well-defined abs and wearing half shirts, like Rob Lowe.
The first stage is Shock. I was never shocked. Having a thirty-five-year-realization isn’t a shock, it’s a slow submersion.
Number Seven is Acceptance. It’s why I started writing this.
I’ll fight now, and I stand up to bullies. When I meet one: the big, straight, dumb, white variety is whom I’m usualy toe to toe with. I am transformed; my voice deepens, my chest puffs out, and I get loud and threatening- and I’ll fight. I’ll cry after, but I’ll fight. Sometimes I’ll cry during the fight, but I don’t stop. Nothing makes a big, straight, stupid, white dude back down faster than, what seems to him, another big, straight, stupid, white dude yelling “Come at me bro, I’ll knock the shit out of you” – while weeping.
My mom and Aaron are at the grocery store and my dad is at School. I’m standing on the front porch covered by the shrubs on both sides. I can see out, but nobody can see me unless they come right up the driveway. My hands in fists on my hips, my legs apart, my bare chest puffed, my head lifted. The Santa Ana winds blow back my hair (a shirt tied around my head, held in place with my tiara), and through my superman underwear- both a thrill. The afternoon sun shines on my magic bracelets. I’m also wearing my dad’s cowboy boots, a look of invincibility and nothing else. It’s thrilling to be, almost, in public in my true identity. With the power of God on my side, and all His Old Testament violence, I’ll seek revenge. I will fight for the downtrodden; I will stick up for the week. I’ll …oh here comes Ann Marie on her bike up the driveway and my mom’s van behind her- and me, with no housekey on my bare chest.