The whole family (minus my brother Sam, who did not exist) packed up and moved out to Providence, I think in the middle of the school year? I don’t remember if it was before Christmas or afterwards, but I remember a big chunk of third grade in Princeton, and then picking up again in Providence after the winter break. I remember we used Mayflower as our movers and I tried to pretend I was a pilgrim journeying forth to new strange lands.
“I’m moving to England,” I told my friend Rusty. “Wait,” he said, thoughtfully hitting the roof of the playhouse where we sat with a stick. “Are you moving to England or NEW England, because there’s a difference.” I knew it was the latter but England sounded better. “England, England," I said, but I didn’t look him in the eye. I just sat hunched over the roof of the playhouse, picking at the peeling paint.
I spent more time on the roof of the thing than inside it. It was yellow and green to match the actual house. Except, then we’d taken it with us when we moved the first time, so now it just looked like a strange separate entity due, at any point, to crumble into pieces and fall down the slope of the hill into the creek. We didn’t take it with us when we moved to Providence.
The drive wasn’t that long, but I was, you know, a kid, so it was interminable. I’m sure I chattered on and on about nothing. But my eyes were glued to my window and the non-scenery of I-95N. I was hoping I would spot a wounded person on the side of the road. I’d make my family stop, and we’d get them help, and the news would interview me about the event. “I don’t know,” I’d say, “I just had a feeling.”
I wanted to be famous. Correction -- I assumed I would be. It seemed like destiny. I talk a lot these days in a fairly critical way about my body and my face, but when I was nine I remember in this crystal clear way once looking in the mirror and feeling fairly certain that I was the most beautiful woman to ever walk this earth. I was going to be somebody, and that somebody was apparently a creepy weirdo who found a woman near death on the side of the road.
Earlier the following year, I’d had my photo in the local paper along with my friend Dorothy. We were dressed up as fairy princesses, which I’ll now admit was not exactly inspired. I stared at my thick, piecey bangs and sleepy eyes and knew -- KNEW -- I was somebody special. Where does it go, that insufferable and earnest confidence that comes with being eight, being nine? How does it just melt away? Did it start on that car ride from my old home to my new one? Probably not. It’s not like there’s a button someone presses. It didn’t last much longer, that I know.
When I started school that winter it was hard. I don’t remember the first day, I don’t remember being terrified. I remember realizing that everyone already knew cursive, though, and I was behind. There was a wall banner that lined the room with all of the letters in cursive on it. I would furtively glance at it and tried the best I could to figure it all out. It was a no-go. “U”. The letter on my report card. “U” for unacceptable. The scarlet “U”. It was appropriate. It was how I felt.
My teacher, Miss Gibbon, was lovely. She once read us a book where a character smiled with just her eyes. “How do you do that?” I asked. She tried and tried to show us, but Tyra Banks hadn’t been invented yet so it was hard for her to do. “Like THIS,” a voice at the back of the circle surrounding her on the floor. Gregory Smith. He stood, epicene, hands on hips, the most stylish kid I’d ever seen. He jutted one hip along with his chin and I swear unto you here and now that as he vogued for us, smize-ing was born.
“You’re pale, Re-becca,” he said my name the way my grandfather from North Carolina did. Like it was a verb meaning, ‘to becca again.’ “You’ve got to get some color!” Gregory had dark skin, and he was skinny, skinny, skinny. He was funny and sharp and he never talked about his family. He hated recess, I hated recess. We sat side by side on the wall down aways from where the teachers kept watch. He’d play with my hair and we’d make dolls out of pine needles. He taught me how to play complicated jump rope games, hand clapping games, and quick razor short retorts. “Gregory is GAY,” was frequently bellowed. “Not for you, I’m not,” he’d say, blowing a kiss to his heckler.
We made each other laugh. He thought I was crazy. I was pretty sure we were going to be best friends forever.
“So what boys do you like?” My friend Dorothy asked when her family came to visit mine. “Nobody,” I said, but I thinking back now that wasn’t true. I saw in Gregory that same dynamic spark that I was sure I had glowing way down deep in me. I thought he was destined for great things. I could see us sipping champagne together in 20 years or so and laughing.
I think it’s easy to confuse bravado with fearlessness when you’re small. Maybe it’s just easy to do in general. It’s a mistake I still make. I like people who are odd things. I like people who strive and fight and claw and want something -- badly. I like that they spark and shine and give off heat. But sometimes I forget to wonder about the history that's made them that way.
After school let out for the year, I only ever saw Gregory one other time. We were 13 and among 50 or so other kids in a room at the best public school in the city. We were taking a test to see if we could attend. Smith and Stokes, of course we’d be in the same room. It had been about five years, but I knew him immediately -- taller, leaner, the same. “GREGORY SMITH!” He looked up and after a moment clocked me. “Re-becca,” he said. He smiled when he said it, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
We didn’t speak again. The test started, he finished and bolted. For the first time I wondered why I hadn’t ever asked him any questions at school, why he sometimes wore the same outfit two days in a row, what his non-school life was like.
I couldn’t (can’t) shut up with sharing. Gregory was the first person I knew who made a careful secret of his life. My confidence might have started fading away at eight, but Gregory’s was in strong supply. I can hear the jump rope hitting hot pavement, I see his legs go crazy as he leaps. I can see his smiling eyes as he goes faster, faster, faster and the little girls sing, egging him on forever, until they run out of rhymes.