Published by Running Wild Press, 2016
The jumpsuit was a thing of beauty. Made of dark-blue, shiny denim, it had an orange zipper that spanned from the crotch to the cleavage. It even sparkled ever so slightly in the sun, like it had been dipped in a vat of finely grained fairy dust. It sported capped sleeves, a wide collar, and bellbottoms. It was worthy of Cher or Liza Minnelli—certainly a back-up singer for Diana Ross. Nonetheless, it made me queasy. But, the jumpsuit also made me feel sexy and daring, which incited an occasional wave of sweaty armpits. In it, I was anxious to flaunt my new body and my new image. Seventh grade, here I come! I thought. There was no stopping me. I would no longer be the nerdy, fat kid. I would be a star.
Any rational adult would be stunned that my mother let me buy a body-hugging, denim jumpsuit for my thirteenth birthday. My mother was a real-deal Southern belle; she begged to me to wear make-up the moment I turned twelve.
“Lisa,” she would say, “after putting on your lipstick, you blot it with a Kleenex.” The purpose of this was lost on me, but she would grab whatever was nearby—Kleenex be damned—a bank deposit slip, a piece of notebook paper, a movie ticket stub—and press her lips around it. There were bits of paper everywhere with her red lip prints on them. In the car. Under the couch.
She showed me how to shave my legs even before that. I had little interest in it at the time; I ended up drawing faces in the tub with the shaving cream. Even though grooming was a high priority to her as a bona fide beauty queen, her pressure on me to learn the womanly arts must also have had something to do with the fact that I was a hard-core tomboy. In my baseball caps, jeans, and t-shirts with vertical Charlie Brown stripes, I was often referred to as “little boy,” and, at the time, I didn’t care. I would not have been caught dead in those Disney princess outfits little girls go nuts over today. This might fly in the faces of today’s parents with a more relaxed attitude towards gender boundaries; you know the types: “Little Joshua can play with dolls, if he wants to” those parents say to their friends over glasses of Pinot Noir. But in my family, my tomboy affectations went over like Mel Gibson in a gay bar. My mother made her displeasure known in many ways—leaving fluffy dresses laid out on my bed, for example. But, one day, she lost her cool completely and simply screamed in my face: “Lisa, you are not a boy!” When I showed interest in the jumpsuit, she was no doubt relieved after years of bitter bickering over clothes.
At age eleven, puberty struck me like a branding iron on a calf. I went from being called “tub o’ lard” and accused of stuffing my bra in the sixth grade (who would do that?) to starting seventh grade with a fighting chance at avoiding the brutal scenes that plagued my elementary school years. I did have one problem though: as fate would have it, my elementary school crush, Dick Carter, had a locker above mine on the new campus. On the first day of school, on the way to my locker, I froze. The scene morphed into slow motion. There…he was. Reaching up…to put in his books. And. He was tall. And. He looked like the star of a surfer movie. His toe-headed blonde hair swept across his cornflower blue eyes.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said. My heart seized up just a little. Dick and I had been friends since the second grade. I never knew why, exactly. He was popular; I was not. We hung out a lot at school. We played handball and marbles. We talked about books and music. But, now we were finally teenagers, and I was thin—both of which seemed like magic. It was clear to me right then that I needed to impress him in a way that might affect our destinies. That summer, I rode my bike by his house, like, a million times, but never had the courage to knock on his door. Junior high would be different, I told myself.
But, Dick was not in any of my classes that semester. I looked for him each new hour and with each class change. Every time somebody walked through the door, I held my breath in anticipation, but it was no use. That was when I started to plot how to run into him wearing the jumpsuit.
The day finally felt right. As I put on the jumpsuit, my heart pounded, and my skin tingled. I tossed on my first pair of sunglasses—mirrored aviators with silver rims. In that jumpsuit and wearing those sunglasses on that day, I radiated the kind of womanly confidence that only a thirteen-year-old girl could. I walked to school imagining that everyone might wonder who the new girl was.
At lunch Dick sat at a particular table in the quad with some other boys. I concocted a scene in my head in which I would walk by, he would see me, transfixed by the magic jump-suity spell. You know, like when cartoon characters are turned into love zombies and their eyes get big and round and go “boing!” out of their sockets. Little red hearts and chirping birdies would dance in clouds above our heads. Dick would then follow me behind the classroom buildings to talk for the rest of the lunch period, his arm resting on the wall but just grazing my shoulder. I would gaze up at him adoringly. We might kiss. That would lead to movies, school dances, and prom—then marriage and babies, of course. That day, my destiny depended on the magic of the jumpsuit.
Before third period, right on cue, I had to go to the bathroom. I never could make it a whole morning without having to pee. I had a girlfriend who would get up in the morning, pee, and then not go again until she got home at the end of the day. How was that even possible? “Camel bladder,” I called her, shaking my head. She shrugged. It was no big thing.
In the girl’s bathroom, as I had done everyday before, I locked myself in a stall. The empty seat cover dispenser mocked me. “Eat shit and die” was scrawled across it in red ink. So, I used toilet paper as a seat cover. I tore off a piece of the thin paper and lay it gingerly on the left side of the seat. Just as I started putting the second piece down, the first piece of toilet paper fluttered to floor, followed by the second piece, as they do. I reapplied a second round. The clock was ticking. I only had a five-minute passing period. I prepared to sit, willing the toilet paper to stay put. At that point, things were going as expected, even though the jumpsuit required more maneuvering than jeans. I got the zipper down just fine. Zzzrip! Then, I wriggled out of the lower half, hopping a little on one foot. Eventually, I settled on the seat and did my thing. All was still well. However, I didn’t count on the engineering of the jumpsuit to be an obstacle to my happiness.
Try as I might, I could not…get…the zipper zipped again. It was made of heavy plastic, but proving to be highly uncooperative. I tried starting from the very bottom, but, as I zipped upwards, the teeth gaped open again. I tried mashing the teeth together, but they slipped out of alignment, opening again. Ugh! I growled. I double-checked. No one else was in there.
Buzzzz!!! The bell rang. Damn it. I fumbled with the zipper again and again. Each beginning started out promising, but the zipper was failing. The two sides of the zippers were suddenly like Woody Harrelson and Ann Coulter had a schizophrenic baby. The two sides were talking but none of it made any sense.
This wasn’t a six-inch jeans zipper gap I could cover with my shirt; this jumpsuit zipper stretched from cleavage to crotch. My entire front was completely exposed. A thirteen-year-old could not think of a crueler or more desperate situation to wish on her worst enemy. And, yet there I was. That’s when I really started to panic. Pretending to faint was tempting, but the bathroom floor was dirty, and the cold, industrial tiles altogether uninviting. I looked around in that stark, squalid stall for something, anything, that would help.
I wracked my brain, but I had nothing—no pins, no glue…no way out. I waited for some inspiration, feeling my entire body fired by the stress and the pressure of rising tears. There was a piece of chewing gum stuck on the wall behind the toilet. I poked at it. Too dry. Paper towels? I could fashion some kind of paper armor. That dispenser was empty, too. It said that “Kristy was a slut.” The little “i” in Kristy was dotted with a heart.
The toilet paper. I could wrap myself up in it like a mummy, and run through the halls like an old-timey, B-movie monster. But, I’d have to cover my face, too, to get away with it. I’d run into a pole or a wall. That’s all I needed. Besides, the paper was so thin that it practically flew apart when I touched it. That’s it, I thought, throwing up my hands. I was stuck in this stall for life. My face would end up on a milk cartoon, and I had never even been kissed, much less kissed by Dick Carter. The headline would read: Junior high girl missing. Last seen wearing awesome jumpsuit.
There was only one option: make a mad sprint for the school office, hope that nobody saw me, and believe that the adults wouldn’t panic. Would they have safety pins? Would they call my mother? Would someone drive me home? Or, would they just laugh?
I had been laughed at before, so the weight of that humiliation hung in the air for a moment or two. My cheeks were red hot. Sweat moistened my underarms. The moment distilled my whole life into that decision. I had begun to grasp the meaning of letting go the past: past mistakes, past humiliations, past successes. I would either push through the barrier of that moment, or crumble to the filthy floor.
I gathered all my courage, held the two sides of the jumpsuit together with my hands in strategic spots and ran. It was kind of like running with a load in my pants, or like a baby in giant diapers, as I hitched along trying not to let go. But I imagined myself a blue streak, an inhumanly fast cyborg on a mission.
When I arrived at the front office, I had to let go of one hand to open the door. But which hand? If I let go with the lower hand, my lower half would be exposed; letting go with my upper hand would just expose the whole thing. What to do? What was more ruinous? Tits or crotch? Another headline flashed in my head: Junior high girl flashes principal in front office. Suspended before third period.
Finally, I bent kind of sideways to grab the door handle with one index finger while keeping my grip on the slippery fabric. By this time, I was floating out of my body, looking down at myself. But I made it inside. To the right, a random adult was sitting in a chair, waiting, but nobody was at the reception counter. I stepped up, peering over the counter as far as I could on tipee-toe, still gripping the fabric tightly. The secretary was over by a filing cabinet.
“Ummm…uh, excuse me, ma’am. Ummm….” I said weakly.
“Yes, dear?” she asked, looking up from her files.
She stepped up to the counter, and suppressing a smile, she quickly grasped my predicament. I cowered in a corner of the nurse’s office for some minutes that seemed like hours. The secretary finally drove me home to change; on whose authority, I have no idea. I can’t remember whether I ever told my mother what had happened that day. She was out at work; I had a key. I was back in class after lunch period.
We moved a couple of months later to an adjacent city down the 101 freeway. After Christmas, I started in a different school where my mother had me bumped up from the seventh to eighth grade, based on my test scores, and a size 36C bra. I don’t think I even got to say goodbye to Dick Carter…maybe, but it was clearly not a memorable event. I never wore the jumpsuit again; it probably ended up at the Goodwill. Did it get a new zipper and have a new life on a back-up singer for a wedding band, or did it become cleaning rags or patches in a country quilt? I never knew the fate of the jumpsuit. As for my boy alarm, it started a steady blipping, like a reliable but disturbing lighthouse in a dense fog.