— for Jessie Rice
I was a fragile child, and whenever my parents used a word I didn’t understand to describe me to friends and relatives or in a medical survey for my school, I felt compelled to look it up. I looked up asthma and myopia and somnambulance and nocturnal enuresis, which sounded innocuous enough until I discovered it meant that I wet the bed.
I couldn’t let my peers find out about my nocturnal enuresis. I was already getting shoved, slapped, pinned to the ground, noogied, and pestered on a regular basis for having asthma and wearing glasses, for being a bookworm, for taking violin and bowling lessons, and for having a Royal typewriter upon which I typed stories, poems, and funny letters to fictional people. It didn’t help that I had parents who took good care of me, whereas most of my peers did not.
To prevent the complete ruin of my reputation, I kept a lid on the rest of what was wrong with me: the piercing (F-sharp) whistle in my ears; the honky-tonk voices in my head that taunted me like a mad chorus, especially in the mornings as I walked to school; the African-sounding melodies that entwined themselves with the honky-tonk voices; the shivering attacks of hypoglycemia that would require me to chug a vanilla Carnation Instant Breakfast drink; my ability, in vulnerable moments, to read the colors of human souls; the phantom fruit-salad scent (heavy on the cherries) that flowed synesthetically across my senses; and the way that people’s words, when they spoke, appeared spelled out in crisp type across the top of my brain: H-o-w d-i-d y-o-u k-n-o-w m-y n-a-m-e w-a-s s-p-e-l-l-e-d t-h-a-t w-a-y?
The only thing I shared with most boys my age was an attraction to girls.
In the 1970s the Bumble Bee tuna company was a big employer in San Diego, where I lived, and one day all of us in the fourth grade got Bumble Bee coin banks made of empty, unopened tuna cans with slots in their tops. I dropped coins into that can bank until, after a year or so, I had enough to buy a blue four-foot plastic rowboat with red plastic oars that I had been eyeing at Unimart. It was a deep-breasted, tall-hulled, sturdy-looking craft, and I imagined I could navigate it on local lakes for fishing as well as exploration. Perhaps someday I would even take it out on the ocean.
But the boat capsized on its first voyage at Santee Lakes, almost drowning Boyd Johnson, who lived across the street and could not swim. The second time I took it out, it overturned while I was all by myself in deep water. (I could swim.) The boat floated great with no passengers, but whenever anyone tried to ride in it, over it went. After a third flip and dunk, I relegated my vessel to the front yard, where, shorn of its nautical fraudulence, it became by turns a whale-bone hut (such as the one built by the young female castaway in Island of the Blue Dolphins); a battlement behind which one could hide from enemy hordes; and a witch’s cauldron in which the girls would boil the boys, stirring us with the red oars until we were tender to our young bones.
One evening, after almost everyone but me had been called in to dinner, Daphne Poalua drifted dreamily toward my yard. She had just moved in down the block and was in the habit of going round the neighborhood barefoot in a bikini. She wore a yellow one that night. Daphne was twelve. So was I, but I was still far from puberty. My attraction to females was aesthetic, not carnal, and Daphne was long on aesthetics, with her sulky Polynesian eyes (her fireman father was a native Hawaiian); her long, straight gold hair; her skin the color of a caramel apple; her curves (more than a go-cart track); and the dimples when she smiled. She also ran a fifty-yard dash in 6.9 seconds, three-tenths of a second faster than me.
What are you doing? she wanted to know.
Yeah, cost me five bucks.
She pursed her plump, grape-colored lips and whistled in admiration.
But it won’t sail, I added. Just tips over.
She came close enough to inspect the upside-down craft, lifting it by the gunwale and peering underneath. Good place to hide from sharks, she said.
Yeah, I said. Sharks.
She crawled inside, then lifted the boat to peek out at me. You coming in?
Suddenly we were fathoms deep in a fizzing Kool-Aid–blue sea, surrounded by more man-eaters than we could count. Daphne gave them colors and names not traditionally assigned to sharks. There were watermelon leopard sharks and polka-dotted hippo sharks. We might be trapped for a while, she said.
I prayed that my mother would not call me in for dinner.
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