All through grade school, I never knew what girls did during recess. This was the period of the Second World War, when Wade School in East Brunswick, New Jersey, was staffed by retread old- maids come out of the woodwork to do their bit on the Home Front. Boys and girls might arrive at school on the same bus, but lined up on opposite sides of the whole building to file in for classes. The same was true, in reverse, at recess: girls congregated close to the school on their side of the building and did girl-things -- jump-rope things, I guess, and maybe marbles, tag perhaps, possibly dodge-ball. The boys ran out behind the school to take over the baseball diamond, or to run touch football games on a stretch of grass when weather was colder or snowier.
Not that I ever did any of that stuff, mind you. I was a sickly runt and a bookworm even then, hadn't any siblings, and had learned early to prefer immersing myself in reading cozily indoors to running out to let my two older cousins gang up and beat the stuffing out of me. Schoolrooms, at least for the first year of the multiple-classes that were given in them, were always stuffed with books I hadn't read yet, and reading them quietly scored brownie-points, though that was never my conscious aim. I had also learned early the humiliation of being either the last chosen for a team, or the odd-man-out not chosen at all. And I also learned the even worse humiliation of attempting to play some horrendously boring game which not only did I not understand, I was also laughably ill-equipped to master. By fourth grade I opted out, read whenever I could, stood idly by watching whenever forced out into the nice sunshine by a solicitous, auntly teacher who, perhaps, would rather have the schoolroom to herself to grade papers, or plan lessons, or snooze, or for all I know slip down her girdle and have a good scratch.
Not, of course, that I could have known anything about That either. There was indeed something, something probably embarrassing and maybe even dangerous about that other race of beings that played together all the way over on Their side of the galaxy. The only certainty was that the very mention of one of them, or their genus in general, was a signal for loud jeering and giggling, musical cat-calling, sly-eyed smirks, and gang-ragging. I never figured out what it was all about, and maybe none of the rest of them knew more than I did either, but what I did know was that I wanted no one to believe I did know, or wanted to know, anything about them or about any specific one of them.
Like the afternoon Frank Toth took it into his head to accuse me of having a girl-friend. I screamed and protested and stoutly denied it, and since he knew he'd gotten a rise out of me he dug in spurs and rode me all around the school-yard all recess. "L loves N" he scratched in the ground, and surrounded the whole thing with a hastily scrawled heart. I shrieked a denial, and stamped the incriminating message back into the mud of a mid- winter thaw, but the spectacle of my agitated discomfort was too hilarious for him to ignore. He whooped and capered about fabricating a whole string of incriminating hearts with "L & N" inside them, making me dash about like an irate little scarecrow stomping them out behind him.
Finally he compromised, carefully wrote out "N loves L", then like an insolent defensive lineman thwarted my every efort to get at it, insisting the while that there could be not the slightest similarity in suggesting that she loved me as in insisting that I loved her. And, since I was a runt, outweighed and outclassed even then, he protected his handiwork until I petulantly conceded the distinction ... at which point he swiftly reversed the message again with his stick and skipped whooping and giggling away while I dealt indignantly with the shameful iteration. It went on all recess long.
While all that was taking place, I was certain that Frank was sadistically linking my name with the vilest sow in the known universe. I still think this was true, for that would be the obvious way to accomplish his impish will. However, that does not imply that in that point in time, nor in this, I or even Frank knew any but the flimsiest few facts allowing a physical or a character sketch about the woman in question.
And this ignorance in no way made us unique. Naomi was one of a rare handful of classmates who slipped into school in medias res instead of starting out in kindergarten and, except for the occasional dullard required to repeat a grade, advanced together annually. In this particular case she had appeared one afternoon a week or more after the Christmas break between halves, and as inexplicably vanished from our midst some time before the end of May. She was the first interloper the school had had to deal with, and socially we proved inept at fraternizing.
Of course, Naomi helped. Unlike Tracy McMahon, who had spent even less time with us than she -- who had everyone saying "McMANN" minutes into his first recess with us about a year later; unlike Charlie Reynolds, who moved into our orbit in seventh grade, charmed himself instantly into everyone's pal, and became my best friend and academic rival, so much so that when we finished high school only three tenths of a point separated our somewhat mediocre grade point averages -- unlike these, Naomi was if possible even more withdrawn, anomic, and antisocial than I myself.
Naomi... Small, whey-faced, lank-haired little waif, wasn't she? Always vague. Hardly a figure, just a wraith. She had repeated absences that were never quite explained and so never made friends, never fit into cliques, never fully understood anything about the structured yet unspoken social heirarchies in class. Perhaps one or two of the girls managed to know something about her, but she was never chosen for organized games, be it dodge-ball or jump-rope, just wandered about the edges looking uninvolved. She was, in a word, the societal spit and image of myself, save that being new she hadn't years of history confirming her role as sickly, bookish wimp and almost inadvertant head of the class at final examination time. However, though I'm sure it was totally unconscious, it was perfectly natural for Frank to link N with L and then to shriek this logical flasehood to the world.
But what about Naomi, then? What is there I still remember? Wan, silent, snub-nosed, unfashionably different in dress. Skinny little waif, half sunk into her own reveries, terrified of others. Funny name. Vacant eyes. Not caring about her isolation, not volunteering in class -- yet the whispy little whistle of her fluting voice responded with a minimum statement of correct answer whenever the teacher shot her a question to see if she were dreaming. Sometimes it was so cryptically stated the teacher missed its relevant connection to the subject at hand, and switched to a more reliably plugged-in regular to get the expected response. But there was never any triumph in that whispered response. She seemed to know the answer, cold, and to have been elaborating the implications of the answer, not merely hoping to regurgitate whatever teacher had decided would prove that attention and studied homework were inside the skulls of all class members. Ah yes, there were many things -- her vagueness, her brilliance, and her indifference -- that made Naomi unsettlingly memorable.
She was once again absent the week a huge cardboard carton covered in white paper and festooned with red hearts was solemnly set up on the table at the front of class: Valentine's Day, our annual popularity contest. Naomi remained absent all of the next week, while the bulging box gradually filled with missives.
Some people got the message that a card For everyone was expected From everyone. I hadn't. I took the rite for what it appeared, prepared a list of favorite friends and distantly admired others whose friendship I may have wistfully coveted, and sneaked my handful of sincere statements into the box in total solitude. Then a few days before the event my mother joined the act and added to my carefully chosen handfull of special cards a cheap packet of simple, sentimental seasonal cliches, strongly suggesting it would be "nice" to make certain everyone in the room received at least one card with my signature on it. Confused by this cheapening of the purpose of the day, I laboriously attempted to fill in all my many blanks.
But what about Naomi? Of course, she presented a problem. Frank had forgotten her the moment we re-entered the building, and I doubt anyone else had even noticed. But I had. Of course she was on the list, but in no way was I going to confirm what he had implied. The vaguely dangerous man/woman thing, when it did rear its peculiar head, focussed my attention on more gregarious and affable females, some of whom had even occasionally noticed me -- not on another schoolyard waif as socially inadequate as myself.
Well, she had been sick, she might not even show up. At last I selected the blandest, ugliest of the horrendous cards from my mother's packet, and hastily scrawled "Guess" on it with the most notoriously indecipherable penmanship in the class, block-lettered her name onto the envelope in an irregular and off-center line and shoved the incriminating card deep into the stack I had yet to jam into the bulging box.
Of course she did reappear, a scant few days before the grand opening. With such short notice, one even wondered if she had guessed what the festive box was for. No one saw her add any contributions, though being surreptitious about adding cards Was de rigeur -- especially with the "special" cards for a chosen few. Besides, no one really noticed Naomi anyway.
My Valentine's Day loot included cards from several people who had had the awareness and the cash to include everyone. Not only was this a show of egalitarian affluence, it was a way to submerge any special silent longings or awarenesses in an illusion of all-inclusiveness. Some of the popular blessed me with cards which I of course misunderstood as consciousness of my existence, and in a case or two fanned into a fantasy of ardor. The popular proved it with the mounds of missives spilled upon their desks, and a statistical proof of popularity could have been calculated for everyone. I was, of course, quite low on the curve. A couple close friends had singled me out, and I was included in the knee- jerk blanketers' attempts to skip no one. And there was an odd, anonymous, hand-wrought job.
It was obvious, after a while, that everyone in the room had one of these peculiar, puzzling orphans. The "mailmen" who sorted cards into stacks for each individual recognized handwritings, so murmurs or giggles of acknowledgement and glances of appreciation went around the room as people came upon cards from close friends, or from perfect strangers. But each eager opener of envelopes came to an abrupt stop somewhere in the middle of it all, as something unexpected turned up in the stack.
They weren't printed, but hand-made; they were on bits and shreds of class paper, some with crayonned color, some simple pencil sketches. There was one for every person in the room, apparently, and each one was not only different, but vaguely personalized -- but none was signed. The more affluent kids seemed embarrassed by the poverty implied in the long envelopes, the raggedly mismatched swatches of paper, the unprofessional style that kids of that age were forced to by inadequate skill attempting ambitious ideas. Most people apparently had no idea where the embarrassingly impecunious missives came from; most were too busy counting their statistical popularity to pay much attention at all.
In my stack it stood out though, because my stack was as I
said on the thin edge of the curve. The paper was coarse yellow
theme-paper, with the traditional blue lines, torn irregularly
into a small square. In its center, imitating one I had seen in
the mud months before, was a hastily sketched heart-shape, in
simple pencil. Inside, in red crayon, in tiny letters almost
hiding in one asymetrical corner, it said "N loves L".