“Jaws,” Jimmy Hoffa, and the Barbie doll trials: That was 1975, the year I learned to pretend to let go.
Pretending, of course, was a skill I had been honing since toddlerhood when I was queen of the hill and the class bully my serf, when Brussels sprouts were Martian heads and I did the earth a service by devouring them, when a car wash was the belly of an angry sea monster and I lived to tell of its defeat. I was a master fantasizer, a fiction writer in training. I was imaginative and precocious. Most of all I was content, and then summer came.
It started well enough: Temperatures were conducive to plenty of driveway kickball games, front yard TV tag, and backyard chicken with friends on the jungle gym. My brother and I got along better than usual: Meaning, neither of us was trying to kill the other. In fact, I was his secret weapon on the football field (aka our backyard). I was fearless, fast, and fairly strong, not at all like the typical girl, which was good. Calling me “typical” was as bad to me as me calling the dog a “little m—-f—’er” was to my parents. But one day, the game was a bit rougher than usual and resulted in the injury of one of my neighbors.
I say this in the passive (“resulted in”) as if I had nothing to do with it. Perhaps I was over-exuberant. Perhaps it was time for his baby teeth to fall out. Perhaps he should have sucked it up and not cried in front of everyone, again. Or, perhaps his mother should have held her tongue. Still, I question the cause and effect and feel the need to assign blame.
Here are the highlights as I recall them: David* — the youngest of two, older, playboy brothers and two sisters — had the football and running swiftly toward the goal. My brother told me to get him; so I leaped, surprising myself by knocking David face first into the dirt. But there was no rejoicing in my victory. Instead, David sobbed miserably as he unfolded himself from the earth. As he raised his hand to his mouth, someone howled David’s front teeth were gone. The boy’s sobs grew louder, and it wasn’t long before his mother came running from the house.
She surveyed the damage, asking David what happened. When he mumbled something only a mother could decipher, she looked at each of us accusingly until her eyes settled on me. Then things got worse. For all the neighborhood boys to hear, she declared: “You can’t play with Leslie anymore. She’s too rough for you.”
It was the 1970s, and we were in Detroit. Machismo was rampant. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” topped the charts; President Ford declared America done with the Vietnam war and survived his second assassination attempt; Carlos the Jackal attacked OPEC; and “Three Days of the Condor,” “Rollerball,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” were a few of the year’s top films. Men were called dudes and “Man” prefaced or ended every sentence. “Man, did you see that dude down at the car wash? He seemed a little light on his feet, man.” Or, “Man, that dude was Mac, man. He was pimping that ride.”
So, you see, David was humiliated. He was punked by a girl, a very small girl.
My scant friendship with David ended that day on our imaginary football field with him running head down into the house and his mother giving us one last reproachful glance. But it would not be my last interaction with the boy next door.