As a child of the Reagan years, I guess everything was pretty clear to all of us growing up in the waning shadow of the Cold War. We knew who was good: America, our leader with his shiny voice and shiny hair. We knew who was bad: the Russians, way over there with their giant red star. There was neither fear nor, more importantly, understanding of the situation. We only recognized an enemy, and then we went out to play.
War, or at least its perpetual presence, was good business for my father, whose shiny hair insured his success in the military-industrial complex. Jets, tanks, guns: my imagination gave them purpose, focused them against the enemy. I, like my father, was doing my part, keeping evil in its place. Then I went out to play.
Mind you, I was only in fourth grade, wearing Reagan-era horizontal stripes with the “little boy cut” my mother assigned to my brow. A good American child, like all the others in my class, regardless of race or gender, we were the same, happily blindfolded. What with the only difference in the world being good and evil, and all the evil being over there somewhere, I assumed within the walls of the school, within the fence of the playground, we were all kin. My God, we were only in fourth grade. So young. They had us all fooled.
And then one day they took all the girls away.
Every day in America was the same: I was always 23rd on the roll call, Kevin always came into class smelling of peanut butter, Amy always sat next to me and told me secrets, and we always laughed when Mrs. Jackson broke her chalk. Order, stability, permanence: the tripod supporting my world, until that bright morning one of the fifth-grade teachers appeared in our doorway, flashed Mrs. Jackson a knowing look, and announced:
“Girls, you are all to come with me.”
Amidst the flurry of flowered dresses, Amy glanced at me, perplexed, and was marched with the other girls from the room. They left the scattered boys blinking at one another in the fluorescent light of this new — and potentially startling — reality.
Mrs. Jackson handled it like an agent of the state.
I asked her what the girls were going to do, and she eyed me briefly before issuing her press statement, carefully sanitized by some higher administrative power. “They are going to be doing something else today.” And I would swear she added under her breath, “This interview is over,” but of that I can never be sure. The lesson continued.
Something was up. Something bad. Something Russian.
My indignation mounted as the morning wore on, feelings of betrayal, distrust and disbelief slowly mixing to create a new and potentially exciting thought: The teachers were not perhaps the emblems of American goodness that they presented every day. By lunchtime these feelings had evolved: Revolution was nigh. Authority had failed, soon cities would fall, and the once-comforting embrace of routine now seemed like shackles. Standing in the lunch line with the boys of my class, I began to feel exhilarated at my indignation, to relish the though of civil disobedience. But then I looked down the line at the others in front of me, all boys, and couldn’t help but feel that I was staring down the barrel of my future, a landscape of boys in lines waiting for nourishment, horizontal stripes stretching on to infinity.
There was no pink ruffle or tiny flower pattern to disturb the linear monotony, just stripes, stripes, forever.
I slid along to the main course, deflated enchiladas in neon red sauce — my favorite, I thought wistfully — and remembered my mandate (Trust No One) as I stared down the lunch lady. When the rubber-gloved paw attempted to ladle me a portion of Day-Glo Tex-Mex, I pointedly refused, opting instead for the oft-neglected Salisbury steak.
Even the enchiladas were a lie to me now.
Taking my usual seat across from Kevin on the seesaw at recess, I looked out across the half-empty expanse of playground. All boys, all oblivious. My revolutionary notions flagged at the desolate sight. We played, yet there seemed to be a lack of connection, of dialogue, without the girls. Would I someday soon arrive to find the hammer and sickle replace the American flag, casting its long red shadow across our pruned recess ranks? I could play no more forever.
My panic was mounting as the afternoon waned; I could no longer listen to the lessons as terrible thoughts ranged within my poor head. Things were changing, but how much? And what next? Diagonally-striped shirts? The implications ...
And then the girls returned.
They filtered through the class, down the aisles, silently taking their places, ruffle and flower settling, still, like the end of autumn. The shuffle and bustle of clothes and backpacks almost sounded normal. Almost.
Mrs. Jackson went on about her business, segueing smoothly from the cursive lesson to the rise of Marxist thought in postindustrial capitalist societies. The girls all stared forward with a singular, identical, unblinking look, not blank, but curiously ... heavy-lidded. Languorous.
I looked over at little Bonnie, good, sweet Bonnie. Surely she would be willing to divulge what sort of reprogramming they had undergone.
“Bonnie,” I hissed. “Were there bright lights and a single chair? Do they have eye-patches, dramatic facial scars? Do they wear as much fur as I’ve heard? What happened?”
She glared at me with eyes of Siberian cold. “Nothing happened. Pay attention.” And like that the Iron Curtain was dropped.
O! that I could have been blinded to those little pinko dresses with their red red flowers, to those fluttering lashes. My salvation now lay with my trusted contacts in the Girl Underground, those precious few who never ran when I pulled their hair — those with whom I shared the mud pies of loyalty.
As the last few classes came and went, I sought every opportunity to confront my female friends. No one would talk. Not Erin, always candid and smiling. Not Amy, ever eager to tell secrets.
“You ask too many questions,” said Carrie, the most high among Honor students.
“We had other things to do,” from Meredith, she of the large eyes and missing teeth.
“Go away. You smell funny,” offered sharp-nosed Clarice.
Sadly, this last observation the truest.
Nothing was to be learned that day. I knew not what had transpired in those lost hours, but I knew something had changed, and had changed forever. Whatever revolution I had planned was now a wet spot on the Jams of human dignity. I knew this finally as I looked around the room in the last minutes of class, the boys jostling and fighting, the girls focused and prescient. I sensed a shift in power. There was a new and terrible consciousness in the air, a new awareness, and as I looked into those eyes, responsive as mirrors, I saw only my own fears. Looking through that, I saw something else: haughtiness. These girls had been taken away to be brainwashed. The ways the girls carried themselves — their sudden self-consciousness of movement and action — I had seen it before, elsewhere, and then I knew exactly: Somehow, someway, they had taken away the girls and brought back women. Little women. We males had suddenly fallen behind in the Loins Race.
The days hence were lonely ones; I wandered across the No Boy’s Land of the playground as an outcast, a specter. The other lads’ unblinking acceptance of this alteration in our social fabric was unbearable: I couldn’t just go out and play. All around us the girls operated differently, huddling and giggling, looking beyond the fence at some bigger world that I couldn’t fathom. I took my usual seat at the seesaw and, alone, bounced up and down. Indeed, the saddest of images. And appropriate, for as seesaws are truly the scales of youth, weighing the potential of every person’s life, so too do they reveal any imbalance. The separation of boys and girls was a question of inequality, of a shifting of social weight. Dangling from that great wooden scale, it occurred to me for the first time that not only is Justice blind, but also a woman.
Then I was lifted, elevated out of my befuddlement by a force on the other end: Amy had climbed on, smiling, “You need help,” and I wondered if the Underground had not entirely deserted me.
“Amy, what’s going on? Where did you go the other day?” and her smile stiffened, and she looked as if she might flee, let me crash to the ground, she was making a decision, balancing her options. She looked around, her eyes met mine, and hovering at the apex of this tired metaphor, she began.
The dark motive behind the disappearance was their introduction to the occult rituals of menstruation, a sort of bloodletting ceremony. What she told me disfigured my notions of biology, of the topography of human existence. She discussed organs, time frames, cycles, and hinted at an awareness of the origin and meaning of Life. Much of it was then and continues to be lost on me, but in that moment I could only truly perceive that change was at the heart of everything, that it was imminent for us all, and that though she seemed willing to resume life as it was before their lost day, I now knew there was no way I could ever go back to before. Awareness, too bright, too sudden, drove me stumbling from my perch, Amy calling out as she crashed to the earth, “Wait! Come back! Don’t tell anyone!”
I told everyone. I had to. This was knowledge my mind was not ready to accept, like wearing polka dots rather than stripes. Now it was I who erected a wall, I who shied away from the girls, I who, in seeking the truth behind the conspiracy, had found myself reprogrammed. The boy with glasses told me it gave them power over us, the males. The kid from Pakistan told me it made women very dangerous, this blood sacrifice, that they were forbidden from his church. This revelation came as far more frightening and exciting than I would have expected from the Russians.
“But all the girls?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Peter, who was rumored to have a big sister.
“Even Bonnie?” who kept looking at the back of her dress.
“Even Erin?” who tossed her hair in my direction and ran away.
“Even Marion?” who had a spiky haircut and Mike in a headlock.
And in that alchemy of little shoes on grass — the arcane lines of Converse crossing paths with Mary Janes — was the seed of womanhood planted.
The grass went brown as the year dimmed, yet the seed grew unabated. When one day the male teachers came to our class to collect the boys for our own flight over the ocean, we looked at one another, rose, and followed. I glanced back at the girls, now blinking at one another in the fluorescent glare, and went. Nervous, other boys joined us as we marched down the halls. We had heard tell from older boys about things, certain things involving the workings of our small, utilitarian members. Sex was a vocabulary word in the tree-shadowed alleys of the playground. What that entailed exactly was debated among the boys. I still was burdened with that dark red spot of knowledge on my psyche, Amy’s revelation. Too many pieces of this puzzle remained. We were about to discover our role in this Communist conspiracy, about finally to understand the connection between our furtive conversations — using big words and bad ones — and the true nature of the bloodletting. My own member became fitful with the burden of one soda too many. I ducked out of the line and into the Boy’s Bathroom.
In the far stall, I narrowly avoided leaving a wet spot on the Jams of human dignity. On the wall I read some of the posts, mostly kids practicing their writing skills on the more taboo words. My eyes settled on a message left in indelible ink by a philosopher from a long gone civilization, someone perhaps in ninth grade now. It read then as it probably still does today:
War and Love, that’s Mars and Venus,
A fight without guns, but with boobs and a penis.
Days full of bloodshed, a battlefield of kissing,
They bring us back Women when the Girls all go missing.
War gives few answers, Love even less,
Do your loyalties lay with the shorts or the dress?
Quiet night in the trenches, pond’ring for hours:
Does God wear stripes?
Does God wear flowers?
We sat in the cafetorium, spaced evenly, the afternoon light through the ancient black curtains casting a bruised light on the scene. Coach Juergenson pulled down a screen, and began the projector. The teachers stood all around us, arms crossed, to prevent any revolutionary hijinks. The projector coughed and sputtered, came to life, began our indoctrination into manhood not with ceremonial circumcision or lion-killing, but with a film whose copyright had only enough Roman numerals to be from the 1940s.
Much of its substance I have long since forgotten, grainy footage lost on the cutting-room floor of memory. A large illustrated cross section of a penis dominated the screen, its parts and features diagramed as the member became slowly more erect, ultimately pointing at some heavenward horizon as the triumphant man’s voice invoked the rites of nocturnal emission. It ran like a military training film from the war instructing GIs in the proper handling of their rifles.
This, then, was the point. Some biological function beyond state policy, beyond national good and international evil. As the film chattered out of the now-phallic projector lens, I thought about those Russian boys across the sea, watching similar things in red-hued kafetoria.
The Russians had ultimately gotten a bad rap. This was a war that ran colder — and hotter — than any defined by national boundaries. Whether we be American boys in the horizontal stripes of freedom or Russian boys strapped into the vertical stripes of oppression, this was a call to arms, to loins, to take sides against a new Other: the girls.
And yet, as the penis saluted us from the screen, I looked at my mates spaced all around, new purpose gleaming in their eyes. The projector chattered on, urging us to choose, to change. Already tired of this war, I thought seriously about life Underground. S
Style Weekly 2003 Fiction Contest Winners