by Julie Ann Shapiro
I wake up sweating. It’s the same dream. Smooth flat surface, late afternoon shadows. A sloping valley, two pebbles. Boulders the color of sand; a giant hand caresses the boulders. Late afternoon shadows and the boulders turn to granite. I smell garlic, kick off the covers; fists clenched.
The dream is about breasts. They marked me as target the day they starting poking through my shirt. I remember being in sixth grade, wearing a red t-shirt, when some classmate said I needed a bra. I could have died. I wanted to hide under the desk. No, that was still out in the open. I wanted to run away, from the classroom and from the sudden extrusion of my own body. This was giving my private self away, out in the open, when I was still a little girl.
But things got worse as they grew bigger in puberty. They gave me away, like a neon flashing light; people knew I was coming before I was there. I imagined them saying, “There she goes, the breast girl.”
I remember giggling and saying to my best friend Sharon, “Men should have to wear their thing where we can see it.”
Wearing her coke bottle glasses, she reminded me of an owl as she said, “They’d look funny.”
“Boing,” I said. “I mean THEIR thingy on the outside.”
Sharon said, “Already there.”
She didn’t get it. What I meant, I couldn’t express at that age, ’cause I didn’t really know how it worked. I wanted it on their forehead, a warning light that flashed when they were aroused, so you could prepare yourself. It would have saved me a heap of trouble and added whole new meanings to the expression, “Their brains are in their'”, or “Men think with their pants.”
Sharon and I were eighth grade whiz kids, what our classmates called bookworms, which wasn’t really saying much since most kids were more concerned with cracking jokes–and wondering how many bottles of Listerine the teacher went through to mask his alcohol smell–than with studying. We studied, breezed through our homework and were bored silly. The teacher suggested we help out with the fourth grade teacher at the neighboring school, as part of the junior teacher assistant program. It sounded fun, so we signed up.
We walked into Mr. Wortman’s class like it was some exciting adventure. We were giddy and anxious, unsure what to expect. Mr. Wortman looked at us like we were animals in a zoo. His head turned to the left, to the right, looking at Sharon in her jean overalls and flowery shirt with her short brown hair boyishly cut. Her large black framed glasses covering up half her face. Me in blue jeans, white turtleneck, long brown hair pulled off my face with a floral beaded headband. Mr. Wortman’s brown beady eyes pierced through my skin. No one had ever looked at me with such intensity. He shook my hand; I stared at the freckles on his knuckles and thumb. As he pulled his hand away from mine, his index finger trailed along the palm of my hand. It tickled.
Mr. Wortman explained that we would be helping struggling students with their math and English after class. He walked us into an area separated from the main classroom by a row of tall, bushy ferns. Behind the ferns there was a desk, a filing cabinet and a small round wooden table with two chairs.
I remember him saying only a few students would show up at a time and if we didn’t have the answer, or a student asked for his help, call him right over. I can’t tell you the details about our tutoring. Those memories are gone. The other memories linger on, taunting me in my sleep. To this day, over a decade later, I avoid garlic.
Sharon was helping a student when Mr. Wortman said he wanted my help on some special project. I followed him behind the ferns. We sat down at the table. I remember Mr. Wortman’s garlicky breath as he patted my shoulders and told me how pretty I looked. I blushed as Sharon shot me one of her looks. She pursed her small lips together in a half-frown, half-smile showing her disapproval. Strangers always thought she was smiling. I knew her real smile when she laughed and showed all her teeth. It would melt away my sadness, such power her smile contained. But when the boys in our class saw her smile they nayed like a horse, calling her Mr. Ed. She seldom smiled.
Her smiles were even scarcer during our tutoring time, when I needed them the most. I remember one day walking into Mr. Wortman’s classroom and noticing that little punched out circles from notebook paper hung above his ears. Some mischievous student must have tossed them at him. I smiled and held back my laughter. He must have seen my smile, thinking it meant something else.
Mr. Wortman motioned for me to follow him. I thought he was going to explain some new project. He put his arm around my back and scratched the center of my back, as if he knew I had an itch there. With his thumb and index finger he pulled my bra strap so it snapped against my back. When my cousins did that jokingly, it seemed ok.
I let it go. I shouldn’t have. Like a puppy dog, his tail wagged. He continued doing that over the next few days, always finding some clever way to sneak up behind me and snap it against my back. That forehead sign would have come in handy.
One day he rubbed my shoulders. That seemed ok, kids did that with their friends.
The next day as Sharon and I walked into the classroom he said, “Jessica would you mind watering the ferns?”
As I watered the ferns, making sure not to spill the water on the floor, Mr. Wortman brushed up against me, the way a cat rubs its body up against someone it likes. His legs touched the back of mine. He smelled like garlic and musky cologne. He put his arm around me. His fingers rubbed up and down my back. I sat down, squishing his arm against the back of the chair. He shook his arm out and wiggled his fingers several times. Mr. Wortman’s beady eyes looked like a puppy dog whose paw had just stepped on hot asphalt. The corners of his eyes were moist.
I said to him, “Sorry, it was an accident.”
Mr. Wortman said, as he patted me on the back, “It’s ok Jessica, you’re a good kid.”
He flexed his fingers up and down my back and rubbed my neck back to front in a circular motion. His breathing got louder. The circular motion made me dizzy.
I stared at his striped shirt, patriotic red and blue, green and yellow, happy colors, the colors of flowers and trees. My whole body tingled as his fingers rubbed the front of my shoulders and neck. His fingers slipped. I thought of daisies like the yellow on his shirt. He touched the outside of my bra. I thought it was an accident and his hand would return to rubbing my neck. I stared at the black lines framing each stripe on his shirt. His spidery fingers crawled over my breast. Colors faded away. I saw only black and felt a wetness in my pants I didn’t understand.
Sharon called out, as the colors reappeared on his shirt, “Mr. Wort [emphasizing WoRRT]man, Casey needs your help.” Mr. Wortman rushed over to her table, where Casey sat.
* * *
We walked home with my newfound womanhood. I learned being a woman changed everything. A backrub’s not just a backrub. Sharon looked at me and bit her lips. I wished she’d smile. I could still smell Mr. Wortman’s garlic and feel the pressure of his fingers. I wanted to shower and wash his touch away.
She bit her lower lip, moved it up and down and said, “Stinking creep. You’re a kid, he’s old, that’s gross.”
I said, “It tingled.”
She said, “Yuck.”
“Come on let’s run,” I said. “I want to shower, clean up and get my pillows.”
“Pillows? Getting ready for his next move?”
“Stop nightmaring. Pillow punching.”
“Why’d you let him touch you?” She said.
“Watch it or there’s a pillow with your name on it.”
“You into Worts?”
“Four-eyes. I thought it was just a back rub.”
Sharon said, “Stupid.”
She said, “End it.”
Sharon stopped pursing her lips, smiled at me and said, “We’ll think of something.”
“I’ll tell my parents about Wort.”
She said, “They’ll make a scene like mine did when old fart Bizer touched Lizbeth.”
“Buzzard shit, he’s Granddad’s age.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Big mess. Reporters, police. Everyone kept asking her to say what happened. She cracked. Ended up saying she made the whole thing up. My sister’s got jelly for insides. I bet that’s why Bizer messed with her.”
I said, “Hearing about Buzzard’s getting me more pissed. They’re stinking traitors.”
“Parents? Men?” Sharon said.
I said, “Breasts. Nothing but troublemakers.”
“That’s it,” she yelled excitedly. “Trouble.”
Sharon said, “But come on. You got a little turned on by Worts and now your brain’s mush.”
“Cruel move. One pillow’s down for you.” I said.
Sharon said, “Come on. I said it to wake you up. Remember Tracy picking on me with those four-eyed jokes.”
“Yeah, I showed her. Went through two pillows, just to get up the courage.”
She said, “The ruler trick under the desk was great. I loved watching her trip.”
I said, “I don’t care how many pillows it takes. No one touches me unless I want it.”
She said, “Go girl. I’ll race you to our block.”
We ran fast. There was no winner in our race.
* * *
I took a really hot shower and still smelled garlic, like it was oozing out of my pores. It was worse than a skunk’s stench. I should know, I got skunked once. At least with that a few hot baths and baking soda removed the smell.
Knowing I needed something, anything, to mask the smell, I hastily wrapped a towel around my body and ran over to my parent’s bathroom. My mom was letting her hair down after work. Her long brown hair flowed softly down the back of her robe giving her a girlish look. She looked at me in my towel, shook her head and said, “Jessica Lynn, you could knock.”
I backed up, not wanting a scene as she stared into my eyes and said, “Wow, slow down. You look like a doe caught in a car’s headlights.”
Mom always knew when I was upset, whether I said a word or not. I said to her, “I stink. Let me use some perfume.”
She pointed to her essential oils, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “You smell fine.” She stretched out her arm, placed it around my shoulders and said, “Why don’t you try the lavender. It’s delish.” I put my head on her shoulder, fighting back the tears. Goosebumps formed on my arms. The tears gushed out; I grabbed the oils, ran to my room and doused myself in lavender, chamomile, and vanilla. Putting on my favorite pink fuzzy sweats I felt like throwing the teddy bear on my bed out the window. Snuggling old Bowser wasn’t going to do a damn bit of good. The new pillows, still in the plastic factory wrapping–Dad got as samples for his job–looked too firm. They weren’t as firm as I thought. I punched the living crap out of them. Mom knocked gently on the door and said, “Jesse, you want to talk?” I ignored her and continued punching. Pillow puffs stuck to the walls, floor and bed. Sections of the floor were coated so thick I couldn’t even see the carpet. I was on my seventh pillow when I heard my parents talking outside my door. Mom said, “Something’s bugging Jesse. Brian, she’s just like you. Keeping it inside, trying to take care of it herself.” Dad said, “Not everyone’s a talker. If pillows work for her let her be. Maybe I should let her take up boxing.” A few hours later I curled up on the couch, put my feet under Dad’s afghan blanket and whispered to him, “Boxing sounds great.” That night I dreamed I had boulder breasts. When Wort touched me I crushed him; like an ant under my shoe. He was crunched into oblivion. I woke up looking forward to the confrontation. No one messed with G.I. Jane. I dressed in brown pocket pants, a matching green and brown top, the closest things in my closet to camouflage. But as the hours wore on my initial excitement turned to dread. Telling my parents seemed like a better idea. Who cares if everyone questioned me ’til I was blue in the face; taking on Wort alone was crazy. What were Sharon and I thinking? So what if I could beat up a few pillows? They weren’t fighting back with muscles.
* * *
I walked into the classroom looking for Sharon. Wort rushed right over to me, like a magnet to metal. Yuck. No one else was in the classroom. I looked at my watch. It was four o’clock. The kids should have been there. I wondered what happened to them, as he put his hand on my shoulder and told me I smelled nice. I was wearing my Dad’s Old Spice deodorant, going for the masculine smell, figuring it went with the camouflage look. I stared at his denim shirt as he rubbed my shoulders with one hand. In the reflection of his silver buttons I could see how ridiculous I looked, a girl dressed for battle with a teacher. What was I thinking; pillow punching for courage? He popped my bra strap against my back, that same old trick he liked so much. The bra strap didn’t make its usual thud against my back. I mumbled, “Shit” as my breasts bounced free. Traitors. I knew the full titty-grab was coming next, unless I moved fast. I elbowed him in the ribs and let out a little war cry. He thought the sound was something else. Like a homing pigeon he stayed on course. His hand squeezed my breast. I glanced at his crotch, not understanding why. As I got older I’d understand it was an instinctual look down to see where I was at in the chester-molester stage of dating. His index finger touched my nipple as I punched his stomach as hard as I could. I stared at my knuckles; fists clenched, ready for the next punch. His spidery fingers slipped away. I ran the hell out of the classroom and bumped into Sharon, who had her older brother with her. Looking at him dressed in his battle fatigues, I knew why he was there, just in case my G.I. Jane moves failed.
* * *
Wort never touched me again. When I went into his classroom for the last time to say goodbye to the kids, he winked at me and called me “slugger.” The freckles on his hand, which wrongly touched me, looked blood red. I wish I had boulder breasts.