I learned about lending, dancing, and telling girls what you’re really thinking when i was ten.
It was an eventful year. My mother was dating a man who owned a boat. It was small, and speedy, and though I liked the man only mildly, I loved the way the water would whip up over the front of his boat when he gunned the motor.
Once a year the members of his marina went on “The Cruise.” It was, in fact, nothing like a cruise, except for that it featured boats and ports of call. It was somewhat like a cruise. It was more like a mile-long boat-trail of South Philly expatriates inebriatedly sloshing from marina to marina for a week in a parade of holdover 80s fashions and cheap beer.
The year prior my mother went on The Cruise, leaving me in the care of my Aunt, whose sun-room door I shattered one day while innocently kicking it. Whether it was because of the property damage (my allowance was temporarily garnished until I could match the “about seventy dollahs” replacement fee so I could understand how much money that was) or because my mother took pity on poor, bookish, no-friends-to-play-with-during-vacation (Michael had been discarded at this point, after turning into a bit of a bully) me, when I was ten I was allowed to join The Cruise.
In packing for The Cruise I was allowed a carefully allotted amount of GI Joes (which I showed nor lent to no one), a great number of books, and my Game Boy. Even nearing the end of the somewhat impoverished bit of my childhood, I knew that the Game Boy was the special thing. It originated from Dad, the source of all things Nintendo, but my mother tacitly approved of it in that it was not exhaustible like a book, that I could bring it places, and that she occasionally enjoyed a game of Tetris.
In addition to a somewhat fast boat, my GI Joes, my books, and my Game Boy there was also Barbara. Or maybe Barbra, but that sounded like a bartending She-Ra villain to me. Also, “Barbara” looked better in hieroglyphics, which I knew because I had also brought along my heiroglyphics kit, and was keen on secretly tattooing her name onto whatever was handy at the time (but not in a hooligan graffiti way).
Having had my heart broken by my longtime grade school crush just months prior, I had decided to be desperately in love with Barbara. She was a year older than me, had beautiful brunette hair, was always tanned, wore a stunning off-the-shoulder yellow sweatshirt at night when it was cool, and actively acknowledged my existence. Also, she was Italian, an obvious pre-requisite for marrying into my family. I dreamt of stealing away to a secret location where we could stare at each other and tentatively suggest the holding of hands only to decide better of it anyway.
I determined that the sole mission of The Cruise would be my seduction of Barbara, and I began to enact this plot at the first marina where we docked. Their bar (they all had a bar; at the time my mother was a marina bartender (though not of the villainous Barbra sort), so I’m sure she struck up some sort of kinship slash cheap drinks arrangement at every one) offered music, vis-a-vis dancing.
Now, I hadn’t ever danced at this point in my life, per se, if we count dancing as either receiving formal dance lessons or going somewhere public with friends or strangers at least partially for the purpose of dancing with them. What I had done is painstakingly choreograph the entirety of “Pump Up The Jam” in my grandmother’s front yard, desperately tried to mimic my mother’s mashed potato whenever she was getting pumped up to go out dancing, and memorized every second of every video from The Immaculate Collection.
So, really I had only danced in theory. However, in that bar that night, Barbara sitting a pre-adolescent longing-glance away, I knew my mission as soon as the needle hit the groove. I watched teevee; I had seen Saved By the Bell: girls loved boys who would dance with them.
I danced. I danced the stuff of legend, of blurry snapshots of my mother’s Miami-Sound-Machine-style dress swirling at my shoulders as I showed off the undeniable stylistic influence of Ms. Paula Abdul on my work.
Barbara, as chance would have it, did not dance. Not just that one night. Ever. However, I didn’t let this deter my plan – I danced with every damn woman in the bar. I had seen Saved By the Bell, and would drive her crazy with jealousy. At some point they played “Vogue” and, like a glittering black-and-white stop-motion convulsing star of the music television network, I delivered the coup-de-grace: voguing, verbatim from the video, and my perfectly synched, incredibly well-rehearsed “rap.”
Pre the adolescent stigma of being a boy too fluent in things of the world of girls, Barbara in fact seemed to find this charming. At the next marina her acknowledgement of me became a downright friendliness so long as her friends’ backs were turned (though, with them looking on she lead me to nearly drown in the marina pool’s deep end, me frantically tapping my toes off the bottom of the pool and dog paddling as she effortlessly freestyled away).
(Good Christ in heaven, this is a long one. You have to understand that in my head I just see the name Barbara, or alternately an ibis, and it all comes back to me in a flash.)
As the week progressed it seemed that my chances were improving; I turned in another masterful dancing queen performance, and generally had a completely unsullen time (possibly shocking the power of speech right out of my mother, as I don’t recall talking to her much at all). Then, two nights before my personal edition of Love Boat came to a close, I had the chance to seal my fate
Barbara’s brother wanted to play with my Game Boy.
I should mention that Barbara had an older brother, who must have been an early teenager, because I remember him as impossibly sage and completely oblivious to my existance. In fact, he appears at this point in the story seemingly out of nowhere, and I have no recollection of him before or after.
(This leads me to occasionally suspect he wasn’t Barbara’s older brother, but some other minor, less important character – except being the selfish only-child that I was/am I definitely wouldn’t have lent him my Game Boy unless I could have gained something from it, and god knows it wasn’t as if I was looking for some sort of tacit respect from his cool-dude teenageredness because, come on, I was spending alternate nights voguing and he was at that age where that seemed not sauve and worldly but impossibly “gay,” and on some level I already knew that and so consciously avoided him and all the other boys on the cruise, and so I have to conclude that he was in fact Barbara’s brother, and that the only reason he talked to me or even knew I had a Game Boy to begin with.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, I preface this section with the disclaimer that he may, in fact, have not been her older brother – he may have not been her brother at all or (and this is seeming more familiar as I think about it) he may have been a younger brother who has been dramaticized into a cool teenager over the course of the last decade and a half. Either way, I think it takes a little bit of the punch out of the story’s big conclusion to have him be something other than her older brother, who she clearly adored and slightly idolized, so let’s just stick with the older brother thing.)
I lent him my Game Boy for a predetermined amount of time. Let’s say from after dinner until ten. He got to use my Game Boy, and I quietly read a book in the boat’s homey cabin, my subconscious reeling from the impact my generosity would have on my relationship with Barbara.
As scheduled, at ten he returned the Game Boy, all games intact, and headed back to his boat. I picked it up and flicked the switch to on to light up that sickeningly spinach-green screen.
“There’s a scratch.”
“Hmm?” my mother’s boyfriend (who might have been named Adam) replied, peering down into the cabin from topside.
“On my Game Boy’s screen. There’s a scratch.”
Maybe-Adam descended the short flight of stairs and maybe looked at my Game Boy, or maybe didn’t, and said, “You can still see just fine.”
“Yeah, but there’s a scratch. I…” I looked with loathing at my now-ruined toy, “I don’t even want it anymore. I want one without a scratch.” And, then, in a wonderful burst of child-logic, “I’ll give this one to Barbara’s brother, and he can buy me a new one.”
Maybe-Adam, already frustrated-beyond-belief with my oblivious self-centeredness and with my mother’s endorsement of it, turned away.
“That boy doesn’t have two pennies to rub together.”
(I know he said this because it was the first time I had heard a real person say it, and it has stuck in my head every since).
“But… there’s a scratch.”
The penultimate day was spent at a clearly frou-frou marina, which had a playground complete with a maypole. I had never seen or heard of a maypole before, and was frankly obsessed with the pointless-but-amusing idea of it. Even better, Barbara seemed to have given up on her other friends entirely, and spent the day with me. I decided my Game Boy screen had been sacrificed for a greater good, and immediately forgave her brother (though not genuinely; it’s the only big scratch on it to this day, after all.)
As our play time came to a close, I dared to ask if she would dance tonight, after dinner. Coyly, already in full grasp of that girl-control that I’m sure made future boyfriends howl with pleasure and frustration, she replied “Maybe.”
I returned to the boat in a love-struck haze. All my plans were coming to fruition. It was the last night, and I would consumate my week-long love-affair with dancing and… um… furtive not-hand-holding? I knew that kissing, and beyond that sex, lay on the horizon of romance, but if anything I was precociously optimistic – I knew that I wasn’t going to round any major bases with her on account of loaning her brother my Game Boy. I had seen Saved By the Bell.
Content with the day’s events, I retired to the cabin for a pre-dinner nap. I awoke later, to my mother rustling the blankets beneath me.
“Hmm? What? Stop.”
I have never enjoyed waking up.
“Peter, are you okay? Are you sick?”
I wasn’t sick, except for with love, and groggily swatted my mother’s hands away. I could sleep through dinner; it couldn’t be time for dancing yet.
“I didn’t think you would sleep through the whole thing. I thought you were going to come dancing? Barbara asked where you were.”
All of me deflated there in the bed, as my mother went on about the dinner and how long I had been asleep. What did it matter? I spent a whole week pining. I sacrificed my Game Boy. For what? Tomorrow was lunch, and then a long ride back to our home marina. No Barbara. No dancing. No furtive glances, or getting called out on a pop fly before I could touch first base. Just a scratched Game Boy, and back to school on Monday.
I was sick, I decided. It was the only explanation. Otherwise, I would be there romancing her. “I feel sick,” I told my mother, opting for the generic, “my stomach hurts.”
Satisfied with her correct prognosis, she swished off in her Conga-skirt back to the deck, leaving me to sink into the deep misery of my sudden sickness. No, not the imagined one; my love-sickness, suddenly intensified with no recourse in sight.
(You could probably stop reading there, but we haven’t got to my favorite bit yet. You can skip to the moral if you like. Actually, I’m going to take a break and use the restroom here, but can you just keep on reading. I’ll catch up with you later).
The next day, the last day, was known as kingfishing. Kingfishing was basically a hazing ritual where anyone new to The Cruise was blindfolded and made to do all sorts of silly things that were meant to scare, intimidate, and humiliate them. There was some mythology involved, but it was secondary to the hazing. Some people had eggs cracked over their heads, was the rumor.
Brussel sprouts being the only food that held that sort of power of intimidation for me, I was decidedly nonplussed about kingfishing. The other children on The Cruise, who here emerge from the invisible periphery of my memory to be allowed some speaking parts in my drama, stood in abject terror.
The new adults were taken first. As an adult (!?) I can appreciate the certain comedy in making one of my friends crawl around on the ground with egg in their hair, but the terrorizing of the children must be one of those things you have to be a parent to appreciate the comedy of.
Barbara was too to be a Kingfished. I’ve never been sure why. Could she have missed every Cruise previous? She couldn’t have been too young the last year, as that’s how old I was. In any event, Barbara, though not in abject terror, was suitable intimidated – as the mythology of the hazing had been built up for her while she played in the fraternal surroundings of the marina. Still upset about my blown chance of the night before, and probably too timid to say anything charming in broad daylight in the plain view of adults, I sullenly stood and waited to be forcibly blindfolded and made an omelet out of.
The event was uneventful, though I do recall garnering at least one laugh from the crowd when I replied to being presented with food representing eyeballs or entrails or something with “Yeah, and?” Afterwards we were a mess (you wore junky clothes; we all had plain white t-shirts and old shorts on), and were allowed to turn garden hoses on each other in order to get washed off before we changed.
It was a typical frenzy of children with water artillery on a warm day, and we emerged messless but soaked. Clean, dry clothes were dispensed by parents, who were already setting up for our au revoir lunch with members of Marina Frou Frou. Children were pointed to wooden changing booths, where boys and girls were strictly segregated left and right by a bored-looking chaperone mom.
I emerged from my changing booth to find Barbara, still soaked to the skin, just about to enter hers. Standing there, alone with her for maybe the last time before all the adults swooped in to carry me back to my other Barbaraless world, I stared at her carefully, trying to memorize every detail.
She stared back, fixing me with a penetrating gaze, almost mouthing the “what are you looking at?” that went with it. What was I looking at?
It was, I think, one of the last times I ever saw her face to face. I felt the need to say something profound and affecting, that would cement me a place in her memory.
“Barbara,” I addressed her, my love, “you can see right through that shirt.”
She winced a little, as if struck (not that there was anything to see under the shirt; she was eleven, after all. But, little girls are defensive of those flat-as-pancake nipples as soon as they find out the sort of asset they evolve into, and the sheer audacity of me admitted that I had been looking right at those breasts-in-escrow was shocking (even to me)).
Finished changing into drier clothing, I left the changing booths, Barbara probably still seething behind me.
That’s all i remember about The Cruise.
To this day I love to be the first boy on the dance floor, though now in our twenties some of the other boys have finally figured that bit out. I only lend things that I can stand imagining coming back in some form other than perfect. And, I’ve learned that the thing a girl least wants to hear is usually exactly what you’re thinking. I try not to employ that one too often.