It’s been a blast writing for the good folks and readers of Gay YA—I believe in the core of my being that young readers need these stories, especially as there are so many nincompoops out there who would slam the entire genre and dismiss our hard work out of hand. Those naysayers are not our audience, after all.
I hope you’ll come and see me over at my blog, Trans/Plant/Portation, and elsewhere around the net. And I do suspect I’ll be back here from time to time, as the powers that be are inclined. Happy reading, and happy summer!
Eighth grade, 1984. Enough of spring had popped through the soil that the scent of daffodils trickled up to the third floor of the Princeton primary school, which was set right up against busy Nassau Street. As the building was nearly 200 years old, we relied on cross-breezes for air conditioning, which, given that each classroom had windows on only one side of the room and given that New Jersey air does not come pre-conditioned, meant that we were all overheating on a regular basis at some point after April 6. Our core temperatures, however, to a great degree reflected our disparate uniform code: boys could wear thin polo shirts once winter was over, but the girls’ dresses were heavy and scratchy, not much of an improvement over their woolen vests and kilts.
It meant that the female students of St. Paul’s were subjected to more unworldy temperatures than their male counterparts. I would put dollars to whatever that this was an additional measure against girls wearing makeup, which they weren’t allowed to do anyway, but which they kept trying. It’s hard to sneak contraband onto one’s face, especially when it quickly melts off from one’s over extended, personal heat index.
In part because of the hellacious uniform policy, I was more than ready to graduate and move on to a new school. Hindsight informs me that Princeton is a town to be missed; I didn’t realize at the time that few places would have as many resources, be as picturesque, or have an ice cream parlor like Thomas Sweets (I’m looking at you, chocolate with peanut butter cup Blend-In).
But the most significant motivator for graduating was to get away from the flock of mean boys who teased me daily. “Maroon the Goon,” one of them called me. I was Bigfoot to another. And the one I detested the most loved to ask me, a known epileptic, to make him a milkshake. Trust me, if I’d have been able to make one for him, he’d have been wearing it. My 13-year-old self wasn’t good at snappy comebacks, though I read them avidly in each new issue of MAD Magazine. I usually just shied away from the mocking or tried to distract them out of it, which wasn’t too terribly difficult.
Girls’ taunts were milder, but I was more afraid of them, because I cared more about what they thought. Still as flat as a board, I didn’t need a training bra, but I saw in the locker room that there were only three girls left not wearing bras. I couldn’t be the last braless kid standing.
At home, I read the same passage helpfully labeled “How Do I Know When I Need a Bra?” in the book on puberty my mother had supplied to me. Well, not so much me as my bed, where she’d laid it when I was out of the house one day. She couldn’t risk walking into my room when I might be there, and handing me a book on teenage sexuality. That would be like offering me party streamers made of condoms so boys could just reach up and grab them from my four-poster bed like so many candies at the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. Better I should read about such matters on my own time and in secret.
This stupid passage said that if I could hold a pencil under my breast, I needed a bra. Because I had nothing approximating actual breast tissue, I could not for the life of me understand what the hell pencils had to do with judging when I was bra-ready. That seemed useless, and yet still I stood in front of my vanity with a Harcourt No. 2, holding it against my skin and waiting for some indication from God that I needed to pester my mother to take me to Bamberger’s for a training bra.
Eventually I decided to pester away, pencil levitation or no pencil levitation. She seemed instantly excited, and we motored off to the mall in 3.7 minutes from the first word of my request. I would be bare chested in the locker room no more.
If bras signify something about womanhood, training bras are stuck in some kind of purgatory—part lollipop cute, part kahuna holder—they’re in a middle space of maturity, and they easily cross the line into creepy. To my mind, being a bra means that childlike sweetness should be left out of the calculation. I looked at the rows of colorful prints disdainfully. My mother noticed my hesitation, and not wanting to leave the department store without a purchase, lest I never show interest in brassieres again, pointed to an ivory-colored one. It had shiny roses embossed in the satin. I sighed. It would do.
Or so I thought. It crapped out on me almost immediately, as in three days later. As there was no chestage to hold the fabric in place, it meandered all over my torso, getting bunched up if I was, say, eluding Jim Malone on the playground. And I’d thought my uniform was scratchy—this training bra felt 10,000 times worse, and I started to worry I’d somehow scrape my nipples off my body.
By Thursday, on day 4 of my undergarment experiment, Danny McGuinness, otherwise known as my personal milkshake requester, was aware of the change in my status, having been informed by Carolyn Westermann, a classmate I truly abhorred for her perfect hair (mine was a snarled mess), perfect teeth (I was on year 3 of braces), and perfect figure (I was an Amazon). McGuinness sat behind me in homeroom, but we took opposite classes for the rest of the day. Instead of lockers, which apparently weren’t de rigeur when the building was constructed in the Middle Ages, we had homeroom desks, and that’s where we kept our things. Coats went on hooks on the classroom wall, but items like lunch and books went in the desk, which had a pivoting surface. Lord knows how many students’ fingers were crushed in those desks, but for the nuns at St. Paul’s it was just another character building moment, and they never seemed to think 15-pound desk tops were any kind of danger to us.
“Look who’s wearing a bra now,” Danny cooed at me from the seat behind me.
“Shut up, Danny,” I said. I didn’t bother to look at him.
“What color is it,” he asked, still in a sing-song.
“The color of your mother’s bra, dumbass.” Like I said, I was no good at snappy comebacks. Of course this goaded him on. I could hear snickering.
Then McGuinness leaned in and attempted to snap my bra. Now then, for would-be bra snappers everywhere, one is supposed to target the horizontal beam of the garment, not the supporting side structures known as bra straps. But that’s where he went, and it hurt. Mrs. McGuinn was too preoccupied with finding her pen (it was usually in her hair bun, but it still never occurred to her to check there) to notice the shenanigans going on 30 feet from her.
Perhaps Danny McGuinness had x-ray eyes, I’m not sure. But in one or two snaps of my right bra strap, he discovered the weakest link in the connection. Which, now that I think of it, was kind of the entire brassiere, because it was a fairly flimsy wad of cloth. In an instant the device was in ruins, and it collapsed underneath my dress, while I detected a note of relief from it. After being produced at the training bra factory, it probably expected to grace the shoulders of someone like Carolyn Westermann, not Maroon the Goon, and here I couldn’t even handle it for one week.
I raised my hand and asked to go to the rest room, with McGuinness giggling behind me like a jackal. Mrs. McGuinn, who now had something like six writing instruments sticking through her hair bun, obliged me. She was the easiest of all the eighth grade teachers for getting a hall pass, but unfortunately I only had her for homeroom and English, first period. When I really could have used her liberal urination permission was something like fourth period, or right before the bus ride home, but that’s another story. I left homeroom and crossed the hall to the girl’s room and hid inside a stall to remove the bra.
Somehow the material that was the volume of a French cut bikini bottom grew once I tried to ball it up, and now it was the equivalent of a softball. Of course removing the bra made no difference to my bust line, or lack thereof, but stuffing it into one of my two hip pockets made me look like a person with a really bad, meandering goiter. This was untenable; I couldn’t walk around with my bra hanging out of my pocket all day. Instead I wadded it up in my hands, realizing I couldn’t simply throw it away because my mother would ask why she never saw it in the family laundry (dress shirts, socks, trousers, blouses, and one training bra to stick out noticeably from the rest of the pile).
I walked back to the room, sat at my desk, and zippered the bra inside my book bag inside my desk. Two layers of foolproof protection against increased levels of embarrassment. Homeroom was over soon enough, then English class began, and then the bell rang for second period, when I grabbed my algebra textbook and headed across the hall to Mrs. Gordon’s class. None of us ever dragged our bags around with us—it was standard practice to leave those in our desks. I didn’t give it a second thought, but I should have.
Danny McGuinness was smart enough to notice me shoving satin into my desk, so he told David Love about it, who whispered into Tim Carey’s ear as the first/second period bell rang. Tim Carey had come up with the “goon” moniker, but I think it was just projection, as Tim towered over every single other eighth grader. He’d run for class monitor against me at the beginning of the school year, and when he won in something like a landslide—I blame my campaign manager, Willie my cat, really—he instituted a rule, later rescinded by Principal Sr. Valerie, that everybody bow to him in the hallway. Slowly he’d bounced back from his own flirtation with megalomania, and because he suspected people regretted not voting for me, liked to get whatever comeuppance he could find. Hearing about my failed experiments with breast support was a perfect opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Thanks also to Mrs. McGuinn for maintaining her pattern of obliviousness, for she heard not the creaky desk lid opening, the zipper of the bag being pulled across, nor the increasing amount of giggling as one by one, the English class passed around my broken bra for inspection. At some point a student—I heard it was David Love, who called me “spaz,” so often I’d come to believe it was one of only six words he actually knew—aimed the fabric up like a bow, and managed to shoot it up at the florescent lights hanging from the ceiling. There it hung, limply, radiating back blue light on the class, my humiliated bra.
The students erupted in laughter, and Mrs. McGuinn turned around from writing up her lesson on The Scarlet Pimpernel to see my undergarment in distress. She barked at the students, her usual easygoing demeanor evaporated, and castigated them once she’d realized what had (literally) unfolded.
Unaware of the debacle in progress, I tried to find the value of X. The bell rang, and it was back in the hallway for my social studies class. Tim Carey caught me in the corridor.
“Your bra is in the garbage!” He said it through a laugh.
While I was confused for a moment, my shock gave way soon enough, as Mrs. McGuinn pulled me into her class during the 3-minute break. She handed the garment back to me with a very strange expression on her face that I later understood to be great pity. I sighed, and put it back in my book bag, then fished around for my combination lock to keep the zipper in place. A lump formed in my throat, eventually dissolving in the middle of social studies.
The day dragged by, as notes flew around my classmates’ desks that I was the owner of the magical traveling brassier. I pretended not to hear the whispering, busying myself instead in New Jersey history, which is cool enough to include legends of devils and pine barrens. I could make my home in the pine barrens, I figured. I would live as a braless devil girl child, feral and running with the squirrels, or whatever lived in among the conifers.
Final bell of the day, I nearly ran to my vandalized book bag. Carolyn Westermann put out a hand on my forearm to get my attention. She had Farrah Fawcett hair and a sparkling smile. I couldn’t recall her ever speaking to me before, even though we’d been classmates for five years.
“They just tease you because they think you’re pretty,” she said.
“They do?” My brain reeled. That’s not possible. Does not compute. Failure, failure. Every synapse for itself!
“They really do. So don’t pay any attention to them.”
I looked at her and a dove landed on her shoulder. Okay, I’m exaggerating just a little. The next moment left me flabbergasted.
“I’m having a movie night this weekend. Want to join us?”
“Sure,” I said, expecting a trap door to open underneath me, after which I would fall into a hell of broken training bras that were magically enabled to laugh at me.
“Great!” She did seem pleased. She even waved her tresses at me a little.
I paid no mind to the snickering of David Love on the bus home.