Jacks or Better

It all started in the fifth grade...

Jacks or Better

by Donna Lamb


It started in the fifth grade.

I didn't like the rough way the boys played so I usually played with the girls. I got thumped by the boys a few times for this, but generally the girls stood up for me and prevented outright massacre. Things changed. That fall, most of us had turned ten and some of the girls had started to develop. With a birthday in October, my own development lagged months behind the other kids and I stayed small and skinny for another five years, anyway, but puberty had arrived at our little elementary school.

Denise Billings started it. She had long chocolate brown hair and eyes so deeply blue they looked purple. She also had tits and stood four inches taller than most of the other kids in our grade. The boys in our class were afraid of her but some of the sixth graders looked at her very differently. And she looked back.

That morning, with the weather still hot the week before my tenth birthday, Denise, myself and three other girls sprawled on the shady sidewalk in front of our classroom, playing jacks. We all wore shorts, except Michelle Jasper whose parents belonged to some odd religious sect and who made her wear dresses all the time. Skinned knees and sandals without socks appeared everywhere; I'd even prevailed on my mother to get me a pair of sandals instead of the sneaks that most of the boys were wearing. For an aging hippie like Mom, sandals and long hair on a boy seemed cool, not dangerously androgynous.

Denise dressed like all the other girls, and really, her legs were still just twigs, too, but her attitude sure seemed different. She had an air of worldly knowledge that awed the rest of us. We weren't totally ignorant, this was the early eighties and even in our little town we got MTV on cable. Where the rest of the jacks players had just flopped down, any old way, Denise seemed to have arranged herself for display. I didn't know what I felt then, looking at her with her tits and her awareness of her own budding sexuality but I think now that I felt the same as all the girls: green-eyed envy.

She had painted her finger and toenails pink and her white blouse had pink and red hearts at the collar. Her shorts were powder blue with fake cuffs and her sandals were red and white. Pink and white plastic clips shaped like hearts and flowers held her dark hair back from her face. When it came her turn, she took the little red rubber ball in her hand then looked at me and asked, "Tommy, why are you here?"

"Huh?" I said. "It's my turn next."

"No," she said.

"Is too," I protested.

"No," she repeated. "I meant, why are you here playing with us when the boys are all over there throwing rocks at the trees?"

I blushed and giggled.

"Tommy throws like a girl," Jackie Yuma pointed out. "They'd laugh at him." She smiled at me to show she didn't really care. Michelle and Roberta Denver just giggled in embarrassed sympathy.

"I'd rather play jacks," I said.

"You play jacks like a girl, you jump rope like a girl," said Denise. "You even look like a girl and you sure act like one. Are you sure you're a boy?"

The moment seemed to stretch out forever. I didn't want to answer the question. The girls all looked at me so I shrugged.

"You're not sure?" Denise pressed the question. She grinned like it was a joke but I knew she had something in mind.

Even I giggled. I shook my head. "I just don't want to play doctor, I want to play jacks," I said. Denise frowned but the rest of us giggled again; we used to do a lot of giggling.

"I don't think Tommy is really a boy," she announced. "I think she's a girl."

If I could have willed myself to fall through the Earth, I would have gladly learned Chinese and read Mao's Little Red Book for the rest of my life.

"Tommy's a boy," said Roberta quietly. "I seen him when we were little, in play school." More giggles and I'm sure I turned as red as Denise's sandals or Mao's book.

Denise looked me in the eye; we sat right next to each other so she had to look down at me. "Tell me the truth, Tommy. Do you pee standing up?"

Communism looked better and better. In fact, I didn't stand to pee unless someone could see me and I frequently went to a lot of effort to make sure no one could. In the boys' bathroom, I always used a stall. Even on camping trips with my folks and my brothers, I went deep into the woods to find a private bush where I could squat to do my business. Why? Well, I didn't like touching it, mostly.

The girls stared because my silence had answered for me.

"You're a girl," Denise said to me. "Or you want to be."

I couldn't move or speak. I wanted to deny it from shame; I wanted to shout that it was true from joy that someone else knew my secret. I wanted to cry; so I did. Tears ran down my face and I tasted their salt.

"You made him cry, Denise," Jackie accused.

"That wasn't very nice," said Michelle on my left. She leaned over and put an arm around me. "It's okay to cry, Tommy," she said. "We all knew that already."

Jackie and Roberta nodded. Denise frowned and sighed.

"You did?" I asked, not really believing it but of course my secret wasn't anything of the kind. Not in a small town where I had been in the same classes with the same kids forever.

"Sure," said Jackie. "My brother says you're a little queer but I think you're nice."

Roberta leaned across the circle to hand me a tissue. "It's no big thing. My uncle wears a dress every Halloween. This year he's going to dress up like Cher in a long evening gown and everything."

Michelle hugged me again. "Why did you bring this up?" she asked Denise.

Embarrassed now, Denise mumbled. "I just don't think it's right, for a boy to be playing our games."

"You said it," pointed out Jackie. "Tommy's not really a boy. She's a girl."

Ice and fire ran through me at the repetition. If words had magic, if spells could be spelled, I wanted those words to be true.

Denise suddenly leaned over and kissed me, right on the mouth.

"What did you do that for?" I said, surprised into speaking. I wiped my mouth with the tips of my fingers; her lips had been dry but it still felt vaguely repulsive, like she had slimed me.

"I wanted to kiss a boy," said Denise.

"Well, don't kiss me!" I protested.

More giggles. Somehow, during the giggles, everyone tried kissing everyone else. It felt less icky after the third or fourth kiss, just a silly game.

"Girls can kiss girls and it doesn't mean anything," said Jackie. "But boys never kiss each other." She sat with her back to the building, one ankle under a knee. Her jeans shorts reached her calves where they had fake buckles on the sides. She had on a sleeveless yellow-and-blue top with a white and gold enameled butterfly pin near the collar. I wished my own clothes looked so cute.

I shook my head. "You guys are crazy." I wanted something else to happen but I didn't know what. Maybe I wanted someone to complete the spell that would turn me into one of the girls.

"Yeah, well," said Denise, staring past me where some of the boys our age had pushed the little kids off the swing set. Kevin Lyons and David Nunez sat in two of the swings and kicked dirt at anyone who came near them.

"You want to kiss one of them?" I asked, staring at her. Jackie began a new round of giggles.

"I will, if you will," Denise snapped back.

"I'd get killed!"

The other girls stopped laughing at the idea.

"Look," said Denise. "If Tommy wants to be one of the girls, he has to do something no boy would ever do. Kiss a boy. On the lips." Denise looked at me, satisfied that she had turned the tables on her earlier embarrassment.

"He'll get killed," said Roberta. We all nodded. It was a surety, like putting my tongue in a light socket, swimming within an hour of eating or running with scissors; if I did this thing, I would die.

Oh, the cruelty of children because they all began plotting how I should accomplish this fatal deed.

They picked the boy, choosing Todd Weaver, a fat kid who would be unlikely to be able to chase me very far. Denise nixed that plan, "If Tommy has to kiss him then we all have to kiss him and I don't want to kiss Todd Weaver; he's got cooties."

The girls all generally agreed; Todd cooties existed. Even I thought so.

"Well, who does everybody want to kiss?" asked Jackie.

"I don't want to kiss anyone," I said. Roberta shushed me.

By this time, we had forgotten the jacks game and were standing at the end of the sidewalk nearest the playground, still barely in the shade. Michelle picked nervously at the ivory lace on her puffy, short-sleeved green dress with the yellow flowers. It had always been one of my favorites and I wondered in a vague way if she would loan it to me once I had kissed a boy. I loved the little lacy detail at the cuffs, bodice and hem. I wanted that dress.

Denise made her choice. "I want to kiss Neil Brooks." She pointed.

"He's a sixth grader!" said Jackie.

"He's a foot taller than me!" I said.

"He's twelve, you know. He should be in the seventh grade but he got started a year late," said Michelle.

"He really will kill me," I said.

"No," said Denise. "You've got to kiss him or you can't be a girl and play with us anymore but you don't have to go first. We'll go in height order, so I'll go first."

We looked around, judging each other's height. "I'm second then," said Jackie.

Denise nodded. "Then Roberta, then Tommy and Michelle is last."

"I'm not shortest," protested Michelle, "Tommy is."

"Too close to call," said Denise. "But Tommy won't get killed as long as he isn't first or last. If anyone asks, we'll say we dared him."

"Her," said Roberta.

"Yeah," said Jackie. "If Tommy does this then she's a girl as far as we're concerned.

The four of them nodded and smiled at me. My head spun from the magic of it. If I kissed this boy, I would be a girl. Oh, I knew it wouldn't really work but if I could be a girl, even if just for my four friends, I'd do it. And if Neil killed me, maybe I could be buried in Michelle's green dress.

"How...?" I started to ask, but Denise had more to say.

She held up a hand. "We'll wait till almost the bell, then we'll all rush out and do it. Okay?"

We nodded, trying not to giggle.

"And when we do this, you won't be Tommy anymore, cause Tommy is a boy's name," she said.

"Huh?" said Jackie.

"She'll need a name that is definitely a girl's name," said Denise firmly.

I felt hollowed out, empty, waiting to be filled with a new name.

"Tammy?" suggested Michelle.

"Still sounds like Tommy," said Denise.

"Tiffany?" said Jackie. We all giggled; I just didn't look like a girl named Tiffany.

"Taffy," said Roberta. "Then if anyone hears us we can say it's because of her hair." My dirty blonde hair did have a red tint to it in the sun; it really was taffy-colored.

"That's not really a name, is it?" said Denise. "It's a nickname."

"It's a girl's nickname, no boy would let himself be called Taffy," said Jackie.

"Taffy?" I squeaked.

Suddenly unanimous, they all grinned at me and nodded.

"Are you going to call me that all the time?" I asked. A painful buzzing seemed to fill my head, like happy little hummingbirds sticking their pointy beaks into my ears to drink my brain juice. I leaned against the cinder block wall of the classroom to keep from falling down.

"Well, maybe not in front of the teachers," said Roberta. She had hair shorter than my raggedy mop and wore green denim jumper shorts over a pink t-shirt. No style at all but we knew she had more brains than the rest of us put together.

Jackie looked at her watch. "Two minutes till the bell and lunch is over."

No more time to think about it.

"You going to do it?" asked Denise. I nodded and she licked her lips then smiled.

"We'll tell the rest of the girls to call you Taffy, too," said Roberta.

"And pretty soon the boys will be calling you that but we won't let them hurt you," said Michelle.

"I'll say when to go so the bell rings right while we're kissing him," said Jackie looking at her watch.

Denise got set, Roberta behind her. Jackie could catch up, she ran the fastest of anyone in the fifth grade, boy or girl. Michelle and I held hands.

Neil's side had just come to bat in the softball game and he stood by himself near the water cooler. He must have been five-foot-six, lean but with muscles, blue eyes and black hair. I wanted to kiss him. It might have been the first time I really thought of a boy as being cute.

Jackie said, "Go!" We all ran out and mobbed him, giggling like fiends. We pulled on his arms till he had to bend over or fall down then Denise kissed him. I went second, out of order but the excitement had got to me. I kissed him right on the lips and the thrill of it still tingles.

The bell rang. The other girls kissed Neil then Roberta tripped him and we all ran away.

Within a week, all the girls at school were calling me Taffy.

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Posted 2007-12-10

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