I woke up early to do it. I would creep into the bathroom and flush the toilet for pretense by nightlight. I’d pull a roll of Ace bandages out from the pocket of my bathrobe and let the robe fall to the floor. I stared at my body for many minutes, flexing my arm muscles and scowling. I lifted my arms and stared at the coarse black hair under them I left out of pride. There was a way to do it just right, the right tension and wrap. Too tight and the fat and skin would bulge out of either end. Too loose and it was ineffectual. A piece of medical tape on one end was best, but finding a way to replace the tape was difficult when it ran out. With the tape, I’d tape the bandage to my sternum bone and wrap along my torso and clavicle. When it was done right, it wouldn’t lump under shirts. It would stay slim and boyish, as though I had built my pectorals. Those fatty bulbs, those indications of difference, struggled against my resolve. They turned my attention to the mothers of the neighborhood, how they would whisper under the firm speech of the men.
Stories of the boys ran wild, but the girls were held in secrets darkly. A sixth grader had white streaks of Cortisone on his face because he’d been nicking his acne pocks from scraping a razor over the patches of browning hair on spreading across his cheeks from his mouth. A fifth grader had taken narrowly avoided an emergency room visit with his penis in a root beer bottle. Vibrating over the bad shocks of the busses, the boys of my fourth grade class listened in feigned disbelief, the film shutter of their minds clicking wildly as they absently plucked at the rubber bands around their soft wrists.
A seventh grade girl had stood up in class when the bell rang and a spot of blood smeared on the yellow bucket of her seat. She was sent home and kept there for the rest of the week. The Fox Bus (route 17) speculated on whether or not she’d be changing schools or sent away like the third grader who brought his father’s shotgun shells to the playground.
‘Developing’ was an important word among the mothers in my neighborhood. Girls were stirred and agitated like photos emerging under hazy lights. A developed girl had to be guarded more carefully, the annual renegotiations of her curfew cut back to half hour incriments. Developed girls smiled less and were given to coyness. They spoke less often and less loudly. The neighbors didn’t describe me as ‘developing.’ They laid the heavy weight of the boys’ word, ‘puberty,’ on my strong shoulders and this worried my mother.
It was the first year the boys on my bus had shorted my name from ‘Leslie’ to ‘Lezzie.’ I had ridden the Fox Bus since kindergarten when we were ironed blue slacks and plaid skirts with frilled collars. The first September morning I climbed the green steps in my shiny Doc Martens and the underside of my hair shaved from ear to ear, I became ‘Lezzie.’ A girl folded back the glossed pages of a magazine to show me a picture of RuPaul. “This is you,” she said, even though RuPaul wore makeup and I didn’t.
My mother often told me that kids can be cruel and we lived up to her adage faithfully. We banished a fifth grader to the front of the bus for life for his third infraction of head lice. We hiccuped loudly at the entrance of the seventh grader with the third shift parents who came in reeking of swipes of plum brandy. I could do a killer impression of the deaf kid’s Yoda wail and defended that it wasn’t mean if she couldn’t hear me. The worst I got was “chicks with dicks” which would have horrified my mother, but she didn’t know what we said about the fat kids or the mouth-breathers.
My mother bought dresses from ShopKo and dyed her hair to match the season. She was auburn in snow and blonde highlights at the municipal pool. She said I was too young to remember before we moved to the subdivision, too young to remember the astroturf on the steps of our apartment in the wrong side of town. I said I remembered a little; the tetherball pole and hopscotch court, the word ‘bitch’ scrawled over the landlady’s door from time to time and how she and my dad passed each other in the hallway working opposite shifts. I remembered the woman across the courtyard who was mildly senile and habitually asked my mother why she let me, her little boy, have such long hair.
She said I was very small then and she wouldn’t have guess I’d be growing so large. She said that I was getting very pretty and looking more like her each day and less like my father. She rested her hand on my back and her eyes widened. She ran her fingers down my spine as I squirmed away and she curled her lips back past her teeth. We weren’t a family of touchers, but she’d had a third glass of wine and was feeling sentimental. In the bathroom, she pulled my sweatshirt off and covered her mouth with her hands.
I boarded the Fox Bus the next morning with thin wires chilling my skin and prominently displaying two large round breasts. My armpits and legs felt dry and scrubbed out. My mother had cut the rest of my hair into a pixie and I looked small and fragile. She’d brushed rouge across my cheeks and marveled at the delicacy of my apples. I covered my face to hide from the Fox Bus and when my lip quivered, a sixth grader warned to let me be. All the girls cried on the bus from time to time.