Helen of Troy’s face is fabled to have launched a thousand ships. That’s nice and all, but my face launched three preschool boys racing across the playground, and given the lacuna in time and chivalry between Helen and me, I’d call our legacies even.
All right, so maybe our face’s legacies aren’t exactly even. But what my preschool self lacked in face, she made up for in confidence. Preschool was my summa alta. Preschool was the one time in my life when I was told unequivocally that I was beautiful, smart, and could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. No one told my preschool self that she had a muffin top and saddlebags, that she ought to play dumb around cute boys, or that, in too many people’s eyes, anything she wanted to be boiled down to either virgin, whore, or bitch.
Yes, preschool was that enchanted fairyland where I could dress myself (once, memorably, in two pairs of pants at once) and believe I looked smokin’, an alternate reality where I could choreograph a solo dance to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and perform it for my classmates with nary a thought of being mocked.
Granted, my preschool had a delicate social ecology that meant not everyone was as lucky as I was. Lauren and Marie, for example, were BFFs—except when they weren’t. When the girls experienced one of their biweekly fallings-out, frizzy-haired Lauren would dissolve into a flood of tears, and savvy Marie would trounce to the other side of the playground and ingratiate herself with a new group of girls. During those tense afternoons, crybaby Lauren was set staunchly in the position of Grade-A Loser, while Marie slotted herself in the position of Pretty Girl Whom You Envy But Do N-O-T Not Dare Trust.
And then, without fail, Lauren and Marie would reunite, and Marie would turn her white-teethed wrath on any girl or boy who dared call Lauren “crybaby.”
I was lucky to float above the drama, and to somehow not to ostracized for doing so. While Lauren and Marie whispered secrets on the swing set, I practiced my dance routines or leeched onto my favorite teacher, Skinny Jen (as opposed to, yes, Fat Jen), or played school in the corner of the room, reading picture books to a bedraggled crop of dolls. I loved clipping obnoxiously large and bright-colored bows in my hair and I favored dresses with flouncy skirts and I often wore fuzzy black gloves during naptime “to feel like a magician.” (Fat Jen, for the record, despised my gloves-wearing habit and fought futilely to forbid me from donning outerwear indoors.) And yet, against all odds, I wasn’t teased for these antics. Even more strangely, my peers liked me because of these antics. It was a paradox that no, say, self-conscious middle schooler (in other words, my future self) could fathom.
This was also the brief period in my life where I was sensationally—okay, moderately—popular with boys. Those boys wanted me for my body and my mind. (That is, if my body were teaching them new dance routines or weighing down the other seat of the teeter-totter.) With my best friend, Kelty, I played dress-up and sang “The Song That Never Ends.” With Josh I bobbed for apples at Halloween and quibbled over who had more than a fair share of Legos. And with Jared I dashed around the playground, moving so fast I’d wonder if my brain were bouncing against my eyeballs.
But it was through my friendship with Kelty that I first began to understand the rules of boys and girls. I learned that it was “inappropriate” to beg have a sleepover with Kelty. I learned that when Kelty and I dressed up in leftover Halloween costumes (him as a train conductor, me as Little Bo Peep), it was “unladylike” to strip off my t-shirt with wild abandon, even though Kelty didn’t get reprimanded for doing so. I learned to be pleased when my mom called Kelty my boyfriend and joked about us getting married, because only really special girls earned boys’ attention—really special girls like Cinderella and Belle.
This Disneyfied innocence, this blissful unself-consciousness, continued until my fourth birthday. Maybe that sounds pitiful, but I realize I’m lucky it lasted that long. For too many girls, it doesn’t.
On my fourth birthday, my parents invited our sprawling extended family to our house for an afternoon of cheeseburgers and orange soda and presents. My uncles deflated into La-Z-Boy recliners with beers in their hands; my aunts flocked to the kitchen, each competing to see who could pour the most drinks or restock the most ice, elbowing after the title of Most Helpful Guest; my cousins sprinted around the backyard and wrestled atop the mossy grass. But I shrank away from the hubbub. My brand-new Barbie and Skipper were crying for attention, and I had to attend to their imminent drama—namely that Skipper, the non-birthday girl, was jealous of Barbie, the birthday girl.
My bedroom sat at the end of the L-shaped hallway that branched off the living room. Over the hum of the air conditioner parked just outside my window, I couldn’t hear much from the rest of the house, and the rest of the house couldn’t hear me. That was how I liked it.
“Oh,” I crowed in my high-pitched Barbie voice, “I’d just love to try on my birthday dress! Skipper, isn’t it gorgeous?”
Brassy-haired Skipper said nothing. She hated Barbie, Barbie with her platinum hair and teeny-tiny waist. (Yes, Barbie and Skipper had identical figures in reality, but not in my imagination. In my imagination, Barbie eerily resembled my blonde, taut-stomached older sister, while Skipper had my paunchy middle and olive complexion.)
“Here,” Barbie chirped as I unclasped her dress and slid it off her plastic hips, “I’ll just slip into this and we can grab lunch. Maybe you can pay, Skipper, since it’s my birthday?”
Again, Skipper said nothing as I changed Barbie into the pink dress with sparkly silver hearts.
“And can I borrow your heels, Skipper?”
I plucked off Skipper’s silver heels before she could reply.
By this point, Skipper was about to flip her lid, and Barbie was as self-absorbedly smug as ever. I was so immersed in the brewing catfight, I didn’t notice my bedroom door being pushed open. But I noticed when four clunky sneakers tromped over my soft carpet. (This instantly struck me as a major offense, this shoes-wearing. My mother was many things, but tolerant of sneakers on her carpets she was not.)
I noticed, too, my door locking with a smart click.
The thick-soled black-and-white shoes insulted my brown carpet. I told the boys, my teenaged cousins, they’d better take off their shoes or they’d be sorry. They laughed, and the laughter made their shoes seem bigger, more threatening.
“We’ve got a present for the birthday girl,” the older one announced.
I felt my intestines braid together. I thought my cousins would give me a pinch to grow an inch, the way Arthur did to D.W. on her birthday, and I hated being pinched. I watched the boys walk toward me until their bodies rose up like skyscrapers, dauntingly high.
“Get up,” the older one said. The younger one said nothing, just hulked beside his brother in silent alliance. I noticed Barbie’s birthday dress was rumpled and the bulb of her shoulder was exposed. She was dangerously close to looking “unladylike.”
“Up,” my cousin repeated.
I shook my head, seemingly mute as Skipper.
My older cousin glowered at my younger cousin, and suddenly they descended, a tangle of hairy forearms and calloused fingers. My bedroom inverted and my long hair stood straight from my skull as the boys lifted me by my ankles and hung me upside down. The room went bubblegum pink as the skirt of my dress fell over my face. I realized my stomach and my legs and my flowered underpants were exposed for the boys to see! In that moment I thought I would implode from embarrassment. I wondered if I had a wedgie, if the boys could see the outline of my private parts (which Dad and Mom said never to show anybody) through my thin underpants—if, if, if.
My cousins were saying something, but I didn’t register their words. I was outside my body, looking down at my cousins’ tanned arms, staring in horror at my pale thighs and my private parts, now as baldly visible as the piggy bank on my bookshelf. (In a few years, another boy cousin would sleuth into my bedroom and steal a $20 bill from that bank and I’d cry to my dad about it and he’d force the cousin to write me an apology letter.) But at that moment the piggy bank was all but invisible to my cousins. I was the one ready for the taking.
I yelled for the boys to put me down; they didn’t. I attempted to flail my legs, which only made my upper body swing like a pendulum. So I stopped fighting. I listened to the brothers laugh. I couldn’t tell their laughs apart, they were so alike; my cousins wore their alikeness with pride. The younger brother always looked at the older brother like he was the best guy in the whole world.
And then everything went dark.
The only way I can describe it is that everything went as dark as it must have gone for Barbie and Skipper each night when I put them in their drawer. For them, the world ended every night and didn’t begin again until I told it to.
I didn’t know the darkness had descended until it lifted. When it lifted, I found myself pretzeled on my Minnie Mouse comforter, my dress smoothed back into place over my body. My cousins lingered beside the bed, fidgeting, with smirking, expectant looks on their faces. Fear hit me like a muscle spasm and suddenly, without realizing what I was doing, I was rocketing off the bed, streaking across the room, fumbling with the lock on the doorknob. I expected to feel the boys’ rough hands on me again, the same way I expected the witch who lived in the basement to grab me every time I made my way up the stairs. In the back of my throat was a lump that knew my cousins were going to trap me in the room with them. It knew it.
But they didn’t trap me: they stood motionless as I tore down the hallway, through the living room, out the screen door and into the too-bright midafternoon. August humidity wrapped around me like a damp towel and I felt my throat close up. I bent over and put my hands on my knees, wheezing. My aunt, the boys’ mother, crouched down beside me.
“Everything okay, birthday girl?”
My aunt was—and is—a good woman. She has plump cheeks and a forgiving smile. She always brings multiple homemade pies to family gatherings, cream-filled ones like coconut and key lime that my dad exclaims are to die for. She gives amazing presents and warm, full-body hugs. I couldn’t look her in the eye.
“Your boys,” I heaved, my sweat-dappled forehead red and furrowed, “are very bad boys.”
My aunt laughed. The last time I’d said something like this, it was because her sons had used the word “turd” in front of me. I’d tattled on them for swearing, and my aunt had cupped my chin and told me not to ignore them.
“Don’t I know it,” she said breezily. “What’d they do this time?”
But suddenly I was plastic, wordless Skipper. I cast my wide eyes on the concrete deck and tried to swallow. I couldn’t begin to say what the boys had done; I couldn’t begin to explain the darkness. All I knew was that one moment I’d been upside down, and the next moment everything had been dark, and the darkness could have lasted a minute or an hour or a year but I’d never know for sure.
I shook my head at my aunt and waited until she walked away.
At preschool, I remained a hot commodity among my friends, and to my mother’s delight I lasted months in the good graces of my “boyfriend,” Kelty. In fact, it just so happened that around my fourth birthday, Kelty began to fight with Josh and Jared over me. The boys’ attention made me feel just like Belle when Gaston was hounding her. (Except Gaston was scary and had evil eyebrows, whereas my towheaded preschool suitors were not and did not.)
The three boys came to this solemn agreement: every morning, they would line up in the mulch on the north side of the playground, and the boy who could cross the playground the fastest would be my boyfriend for the day. The race would start with the competitors shaking out their thin, ropy muscles while I toed a starting line in the mulch with my sneaker. Jared would stretch his neck, making his Brillo-pad hair gleam in the early sunlight. Josh’s lips would be thin. Kelty’s cheeks would be red before I even yelled, “Go!”
Jared always won. He was the natural athlete of the group, the one who would go on to play a sport in every season and win the affections of countless teenage girls. Josh would eventually lose his baby fat and secure a not-so-glorified position on the soccer team—goalie, or maybe second-string defender—and he wouldn’t, to my knowledge, remember me or those preschool races. But for a sweet and shining time, those boys fought for me, their elbows stabbing the foggy morning air, their chests swelling, their Velcro sneakers thwacking the soft ground. And one of them would win the day—the glory—the pride—and me.
And then, one Monday morning, everything changed. The four of us arrived at preschool to find the doors removed from each of the bathroom stalls. The teachers had come through on their threat: if we kids couldn’t stop slamming the stall doors, we wouldn’t have stall doors. This drama was far more important than footraces. It was all any of us kids could talk about.
Miraculously, I made it through the morning without having to pee, but then naptime arrived. As part of the teachers’ foolproof plan to prevent bedwetting (well, sleeping-bag-wetting) accidents, they always supervised a mandatory pre-naptime bathroom trip. They would line us up outside the bathroom and usher us, one by one, into the newly doorless bathroom stalls. Once we’d flushed our toilets and washed our hands, we were free to sleep.
I waited in the interminable bathroom line. My biggest fear—my greatest humiliation—was that one of my peers would catch me with my pants (literally) down. I’d already been close to pantsless (or past pantsless?) with my cousins, and that memory burned worse than iodine on a skinned knee. I couldn’t survive the humiliation of my friends whom I saw every day seeing me like that.
Despite my agony, the line for the bathroom crawled forward. Finally, Fat Jen gave me the sour-faced look that meant, “you’re up, kid.” The first bathroom stall was open. I made my way to the toilet, slid my bright-pink pants and Tinkerbell underwear to my knees, and plopped down on the U-bend. I listened to the deafening whoosh as the toilet in the next stall flushed.
To my horror, Jared—Jared!—emerged from the stall with the still-gurgling toilet. As he passed my stall on his way to the sink, he locked eyes with me for an agonizing moment. I couldn’t believe my luck. There I sat, bare-assed and blushing, while he got to be fully dressed and in full little-boy swagger mode.
And you can bet that Jared rubbernecked me a second time on his way out of the bathroom.
I’m not quite sure when the races to be my boyfriend disbanded, but it was shortly after the toilet-gawking incident. Once you’ve been seen on the porcelain throne, you just don’t feel much like a queen. You just don’t feel like someone who deserves to have boys racing to have her. You feel like someone who should sit quietly (with her pants up) and pray for better luck.
Because of the dark space in my recollection of my fourth birthday, I never knew exactly how much blame to place on my two cousins. What lines had they actually crossed? Was the hanging-from-the-ankles the worst of it, or…? I didn’t want to think past the “or.” In my girl-mind, the “or” signified that maybe the boys had pulled down my underpants. As I grew older, I learned that the “or” could be something far worse.
But no amount of worrying about that “or” clarified my memory. There was still a space—of unknown size and weight—carved out of my fourth birthday, giving me an off-kilter fear that I’d been victimized or, worse, that I hadn’t been victimized and was just overreacting to an inexcusable degree. I couldn’t decide whether to pity myself or punish myself.
Time passed and I learned that my boy cousins—not the cousins who’d held me upside down; different boy cousins—were naturally fascinated with bodies, both theirs and mine. At one point or another I glimpsed every one of my boy cousins’ backs as they peed in their backyards. I was propositioned by a second cousin to show him “mine” if (you guessed it) he showed me “his.” Once, I unknowingly interrupted a cousin as he pissed in the bushes during the Fourth of July fireworks.
Knowing what I eventually knew about boys and their fascination with genitalia, could I hold a grudge against my ankle-grabbing cousins after so many years? Could I hold a grudge over a memory that was murky at best, blank at worst?
And here’s the punch-in-the-gut question: could I hold a grudge against a dead boy? Because the oldest cousin, the one who orchestrated my “birthday gift,” died just before Christmas 1998, just months after my fifth birthday. To the rest of my extended family, he’s a beloved memory to be mourned. To me? He’s someone I’m not sure how to remember, much less grieve. I’ve heard people tout how good he was, how he was intelligent, how he was active in Presbyterian Bible studies, and as I listen to that praise I feel myself turn rubbery and vacant as Skipper.
One day near the end of my preschool tenure, the rest of the class and I were clustered on the big carpet for storytime. We adored the carpet with its squares of blue and red, yellow and green; we adored sitting in an imperfect circle and listening to the teacher of the day (hopefully Skinny Jen) guide us through a picture book.
I wasn’t sitting near Kelty or Josh or Jared. By that time, our odd foursome had disbanded. Instead I sat by a brunette boy named Graham. All I knew about Graham was that he often had a grape-juice stain above his upper lip, and he wore too many turtlenecks in egregious colors, and he didn’t seem like the type of kid I wanted to be friends with.
As we kids tittered in anticipation of storytime, Graham scooted close to me, so close that I could smell the Fig Newtons on his breath. I loathed Fig Newtons.
“Pssst,” Graham spat into my ear. His humid breath made my ear and neck grow moist, and I flinched. Undeterred, Graham leaned closer. “Pssst!” And then Graham’s fingers—which were just as damp and clingy as his breath—wedged beneath the waistband of my pants and underwear. I felt his small little-boy palm press against my left butt cheek, as if he were trying to give my ass a low-five. I could visualize the Fig Newton goo adhering to my body.
Incensed, I tried to wriggle away. “Stop!”
Graham didn’t stop; I felt his fingers moving, kneading my skin the way my cat did before settling on my lap to sleep. “I’m gonna touch your butt a hundred times,” Graham said. His gummy fingers kept suctioning and pulling away from my skin.
Barbie would have gasped dramatically and waited for Ken to sweep in and save the day. Then Barbie and Ken would’ve gone out to dinner and fallen in love and pledged their affection and loyalty to one another forevermore. (From a young age, Barbie was gunning for a diamond.) Skipper would’ve resolved herself to Graham’s hundred touches. She would’ve whined to Barbie about it later. (That is, when she could get in a word in edgewise. Barbie had a habit of babbling.)
I didn’t pull a Barbie or a Skipper. Instead I raised my hand in the air and waved it madly, drowning-swimmer-style. “Graham is touching my butt!” I shrieked, not caring if every single preschooler and every single teacher heard. I wanted them to hear me. “He said he’d touch it a hundred times!”
Both the Jens looked scandalized. But they rushed to me without hesitation, Skinny Jen fawning over me, Fat Jen giving Graham her scariest stinkeye. In the end, the head of the preschool called Graham’s parents, and Graham was forbidden to sit next to me ever, ever again. It wasn’t a radical punishment, but I hadn’t been searching for radical. I just wanted to be heard.
Occasionally I search for my dead cousin’s obituary, which is filed in the archives of our little town’s newspaper. My cousin died at age 18. I’m young myself, but even I think of 18 as something way back in the rearview mirror of life. My 18-year-old self was kind of sweet and kind of an asshole; mature for her age but also a big idiot; simultaneously bigheaded and insecure. In my memory, my cousin was A Man when he died, someone fearsome and untouchable. But really he was just a kid, just someone who never even got to be the age I am now. And he was even more of a kid at my fourth birthday party. And he either did something perverted to me or didn’t do something perverted to me, and I have to live with that either/or. It’s better than not living at all, I guess.
The truth is that I still dissociate during sex—at least, that’s the term my therapist gives for the hyperaware, overthinking, out-of-body mania I feel when my girlfriend and I start getting intimate. I occasionally shy away from my girlfriend’s touch, feeling dirty and humiliated when I know that she wants me and that I want her back. When I think of sex I think: degrading, undignified, animalistic. I can combat those thoughts, and I can walk myself through my hang-ups about intimacy; it just takes careful, diligent work.
But the work is worth it. The work is worth it because the work is all that stands between me and a plastic, immobile, Skipper-esque life. The work is worth it because my girlfriend’s eyes are the color of coffee with just a splash of milk and her inner thighs are decadent as buttercream icing. The work is worth it because her lips are always just-kissed pink and because she lets me blare “I Want It That Way” in the car and sometimes she even sings along. The work is painful, but it’s the necessary price of survival. It’s the starting line for everything else.
Alaina Symanovich graduated from Penn State in 2015 with an MA in Creative Writing. She currently studies Creative Nonfiction in the MFA program at Florida State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sonora Review, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and other journals. You can find her at alainasymanovich.com.