If I were a dolphin, I’d be one of those loner ones that leaves the pod at an early age. I would fear the frozen smiles that never fade while my kind gang rapes each other, commits infanticide, and bats around baby sharks like volleyballs. Of course I’d see the good in my peers too. Sometimes cetaceans mourn loss, and sometimes they rescue members of other species. And everyone knows that dolphins milk a lot out of living. Perhaps more than any other mammal, they really know how to throw down. But this wouldn’t convince me to abandon my guard. I’d strike out from the crowd just to get a little clarity, to block out the weird psychic static and the behavioral contradictions. I would seek freedom, the occasional more meaningful connection, and just something better. It would be safer. It would be good judgment.
One of my friends, newly involved in something called re-evaluative therapy, had grown convinced that all adult hang-ups could be resolved by “going early,” as she called it. “When was the first time you remember feeling this way, seeing yourself as a loner dolphin?”
“First-grade Show-and-Tell,” I told her.
I reached way, way back and dusted off long abandoned thoughts of my then best friend, “Wally” Bealer. Wally was out sick that day, which left her open and vulnerable to ridicule. It could have been any one of us who had fallen, but today was her day because she was not present to defend herself. And because Show-and-Tell allowed our teacher, Mrs. Sutherland a long, lingering smoke break, there would be no one to disrupt our inevitable descent toward a Lord of the Flies free-for-all.
I’d started school a year early because my mother had died, and my dad worked and needed a place for me to be during the day. It was a gritty, downtown schoolhouse by the train tracks. First grade is the singular time in my life that I have felt truly urban. The only greenery on the property included a few blades of grass pushing through pavement and a tree that scattered helicopter seeds over the see-saws. Chip Baker once told me that those seeds are where babies come from. Seeds. That was logical. But I argued, “No, babies come from our mother’s bellies.”
“Gross!” he cried before running away.
It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t fit in with other kids, but I was a bit on the fringes of first-grade high society. Ours was a small class, and nearly all of the other kids’ parents were divorced or separated. My classmates were child souls bound by broken homes, but broken home by mortality didn’t count. I wasn’t picked on; I just wasn’t really picked.
Anne Crenshaw was suddenly made hyper-popular by virtue of becoming the most recent product of domestic fracture. She was cute, smart-mouthed if not a little aggressive, and wore red tops that matched her mom’s. I didn’t know the term for it then, but Anne’s mom was hot — shapely, tall, poured into Gloria Vanderbilt denim and clearly putting herself out there. “Oh, and already,” my Grandmother drawled while driving me home in her giant green LTD one evening. Anne’s mom’s hair was frosted like Farrah Fawcett’s, and the sprayed mass of it flicked across her shoulders like curled claws when she nodded. She came to class one day to issue invitations to a sleepover for all of Anne’s female schoolmates. “Maybe she could meet my dad and be my new mom,” I’d considered.
It was at Anne’s overnight that Wally picked me out to be her friend. Call it pattern recognition. She was a loner dolphin and she must have spotted the loner dolphin in me too. This made me feel special in my lonerness. Most of my best friendships have begun in this way.
It’s not always positive though, this loner dolphin pattern recognition. Not surprisingly, it’s magnetized a stalker or two. You read about how the wrong kind of loner dolphin sometimes can’t handle the isolation and will try to force itself on unsuspecting scuba divers. So, you know, it’s bound to happen when you’re out there exposed and vulnerable flashing unmistakable loner patterns at the more predatory brand of fellow loner.
But overall, the loner dolphin thing has had its merits.
I was lucky to be Wally’s chosen one. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but I imagine a confident Wally striding up, putting her arm around mine and saying something like, “Stick with me kid.” At various points during Anne’s slumber party, things alternated between boring and frightening. Anne orchestrated Barbie shopping sprees; Shannon Green divided everyone up into teams to run around and pretend-kill each other in mock wars like the ones she famously instigated during recess.
In these moments, Wally always knew how to find the best escape hatch. She’d invite me to a Stretch Armstrong tug-of-war while the others helped Barbie find tiny plastic shoes to match Ken. Barbie was fine and all, but she wasn’t filled with something you could spread on your favorite sandwich if you sprung a leak from her arm.
Wally had pet hamsters and a fanciful gurgling stream that ran across the back of her parents’ property. I went to her house for playdates often, and we nearly always caught salamanders. We kept them in her aquarium where we watched them grow. Sometimes we took very rudimentary notes on their behavior. Wally was cool as shit. Anyone could see that. But actually, they couldn’t.
On Show-and-Tell day, Paul Miller showed and told about his favorite KISS album, Hotter than Hell. This was the same presentation he had done twice before because it gave him cause to thrust his tongue out appreciably at the close of his talk. We had positively conditioned him to repeat his antic by increasing our awe and approval with every performance. For the occasion, Paul liked to apply his mother’s coral-colored nail polish and lipstick, which he claimed made him more like Gene Simmons. “Nunh unh,” said Shannon Green who felt that these adornments only made him resemble his mom. But Paul was an alpha kid, and as the only one of us who could get away with giving the same “show and tell” speech three consecutive times, he was also able to pull off pre-adolescent cosmetics for very young males.
Then Anne told us about how it had been her Dad’s weekend, so he took her shopping for any two toys she wanted. She got a new Weeble Wobble tree house, which I thought was really great but would have been better if it was big enough for real children to play in. Anne also got a large inflatable Incredible Hulk shaped like a Weeble Wobble. It was designed so that the airy monster would fall backward when you punched him and then quickly right himself so that you could go in for another wallop immediately.
Chip Baker told us that he looked down the stairwell adjacent to our classroom and saw the glowing orange eyes of the devil right there in the basement. Unsupervised, some of us walked to the doorway and looked down, but the demon must have been taking his afternoon nap.
Gene Simmons, Weeble Wobbles, and the Dark One in the basement would be tough to top, but I was sure that my presentation would be the envy of everyone. What I brought was alive and an homage to Wally Bealer, the coolest kid who’d ever lived. I’d never have guessed that I would be the one to arouse the classes’ inner beast and to trigger such rapid social decline.
I’d brought a glass mason jar with holes in the top. It contained fireflies likely gasping for air, desperately clinging to life although Wally’s sweet mother had assured us that they would be fine. I trusted that they would.
I told everyone that Wally had taught me how to catch these creatures the way that she taught me how to catch salamanders and frogs. Then, I unveiled my unquestionably fascinating theory that fireflies and fairies were one and the same. My dad or someone had told me that fireflies inspired the character of Tinker Bell. As much as I wanted Tinker Bell to actually be a tiny winged woman, this news had not really diminished my fascination with fairies but rather had enhanced my fascination with fireflies.
“BUGS!,” Shannon Green screeched as she climbed atop her chair. I never understood this phenomenon of other females scaling furniture and cowering at the sight of insects, mice, or anything really awe inspiring. I’m sure someone told us that this is what we’re supposed to do, that this is “proper behavior befitting a lady.” But such reactions seemed wholly counter to my instincts. Mice were furry like puppies. If we were to be lucky enough to encounter one, shouldn’t we get busy trying to scramble up a rodent wheel and some toys for it?
“I hate Wally!,” announced Anne. “She’s a Tomboy! She even has a boy’s name; she should just be a boy. I can’t believe that you go to her house. Eeew.”
Foul accusations flew and carried a subtle subtext wholly incomprehensible to us all, yet we each knew that whatever that subtext was, it was very, very bad. I stood strong and defended the honor of my best friend for whom I was so very grateful, “Wally is not a Tomboy!” She was a Tomboy, but I directed emphasis away from that fact.
“Wally’s great. You’re just mean!”
This was met with more collective bedlam through which I could no longer decipher individual commentary.
“Wally’s magical. Wally helps baby hamsters survive birth!”
It was to my further shock and disbelief that my irresistibly inspirational, heroic even, calls for love vs. hate utterly flopped. The entire class morphed into a barbaric mob of the sort built on decades of fomenting animosity. If Wally had been in the room at that moment, I’m certain that she would have been knocked to the floor and prodded with pointy sticks. I was lucky to survive.
I continued to bellow Wally’s attributes, “Wally’s nice! Wally likes Stretch Armstrong!,” but no one heard my pleas through their fearsome rage. I half knew that when Wally returned, everyone would treat her the same way as before and act like nothing had happened. But I wouldn’t be able to act like nothing had happened. What most bewildered me was not the other children’s unbridled unkindness but the fact that they couldn’t see in Wally what I saw. And anyway, what was bad about Tomboys? Who wouldn’t want to hang out with a girl who caught frogs and salamanders with her bare hands and cooed them into a state of comfort and trust?
I had stood up for my friend, something that would prepare me for a few other events in my future. I felt slightly proud and certainly indignant. But mostly, I felt like the pod just wasn’t for me. Later, instead of the usual recess war play, Chip Baker led a labor gang in an effort to dig to China where we would be able to “see the devil.” Apparently, Lucifer had discovered better digs than the schoolhouse basement.
I kept quiet, grabbed a stick and dug.