Postcards, Boobs & Heat
originally published at Dirty Laundry
It's springtime in Fresno and the temperature is 103 degrees. I sit at my desk with my gray wool, Catholic uniform sticking to my back from the heat. The good nuns of St. Joseph's Elementary School do not see a need for air conditioning. When some of the girls faint on the playground, Sister Margret simply says, "Heat is God's way of letting us know that we are not the powerful ones. If He wanted to He could make it 20 degrees hotter and we'd all drop dead like flies, everyone of us. Now go on and play." Nuns always wear black and work the topic of death into every conversation. I guess since they're all married to Jesus and only get to see him when they die, they look forward to it more than we do. It's kind of like their honeymoon.
On this particular day, I'm walking down the corridor perspiring, when Sister Michael hands me an envelope, "This came for you." A letter? At school? How bizarre. I wait for her to leave and open it cautiously. Inside is something I'll never forget - a postcard of a kangaroo sent from Frankie Catalucci. I turn it over and read, "Hi. Australia is fun. I got to hold a Koala bear. See you soon. Love, Frankie." Love? From the cutest guy in my class, who is on vacation with his family and apparently thinking of me. Anyone who knew anything, knew that Frankie liked Kelly and that she liked him back. They hadn't held hands or anything but they looked at each other a lot. I'm sure they would've kissed by now if they were in a regular school, but ours is segregated and the boys are not allowed to talk to the girls. To ensure that we never speak, we have our own playgrounds and go out to recess through different doors. The only time you ever get to see the boys up close is when we make a line to go to confession on Fridays. We form one line and walk to church single file. We have to stand an arm's distance apart and walk with our heads bent down and our hands folded in prayer, which makes it hard to see where you're going. But those are the rules. And we are the rule followers. To make sure you're an arm's distance from the person in front of you, you extend your arm out, fingers straight. And that is where it happens - sometimes you touch the back of the other person's shirt with your longest finger and if that person's a boy, then you've touched a boy's shirt. It doesn't sound like much but it's quite a thrill. Sometimes, even when you don't have a sin on your soul, you get in line to confess anyway, just for the chance to reach out and touch somebody.
Actually, now that I think about it, I'm probably not allowed to get a letter from a boy. I rip the postcard up and flush it down the toilet to protect myself and Frankie. I wonder what he sees in me anyway? I'm like all the other flat chested, sweaty girls in saddle shoes at our school. I've never even spoken to him or touched his shirt. I have been called upon to read out loud in class a few times. Maybe he thinks my voice is sexy or is impressed with my ability to read. I'm 5'7'' in the sixth grade, almost a foot taller than he is. My grandma says not to slouch, that good posture is important. Maybe that's what Frankie likes about me - I'm a giant girl who sits up straight.
Whatever, he used the "L" word and I'm going to find out why. I devise a plan, as I stand in line to buy a carton of milk. I'll ask Kelly if she's heard from Frankie and find out if she got a postcard. If she has, I'll know Frankie's committed a sin by writing to me and denounce his affection. But... if by chance Kelly has not received one, then I'll consider myself Frankie new girlfriend and eventually his fiance and wife. I pay a quarter for my milk and for the first time in my life I think of myself as a woman. A tall, sweaty woman but still. I walk defiantly through the cafeteria and speak more slowly because that's... what... women... do. I look across the cafeteria, at Frankie's friends - Mathew, John and Gerard. Are they going places in life? Or will they be sponging off us for the rest of our lives? The bell rings and jars me back to reality. It's time for recess and to find out what Kelly knows.
"Kelly, wait up," I holler as I run up to join her and Carolyn on the playground. They suspect nothing. Carolyn informs me there's a meeting in the girl's bathroom in 5 minutes. "Why?" I ask. "Lisa and Julie both want to join our group, but we only have room for one more best friend." "So," Kelly cuts me off, "We're going to measure their boobs in the bathroom and whoever has the biggest ones wins." (A contest that would continue to be played in my adult years, but not so openly.) I discreetly look at Kelly's breasts and wonder if she pads her bra. I make a mental note to pad mine more when Frankie returns. I was doing everything I could to get bigger boobs. I prayed to God every night on their behalf, drank milk, did chest exercises and tried to sleep on my back. My mom said if you sleep on your stomach they won't grow because they don't have room to "come in." She's a size D so she knows what she's talking about. I try really hard to sleep on my back but I always end up on my stomach. I set my alarm 3 times a night to wake myself up and turn over. Once I even put books under my pillow on each side of my head to hold it in place, but when I woke up, all I had to show for my efforts was a paper cut on my chin.
I follow Kelly and Carolyn into the bathroom and as we wait for Lisa and Julie to show up, I make my move. "Kelly, do you know when Frankie's coming home?" "In twelve days", she says securely. The bathroom door opens and in march the contestants, Lisa and Julie. They smile but we can see the fear in their eyes. Carolyn tells them to go into separate stalls and take their shirts and bras off. I wonder what makes them want to be part of our group so much that they'd do this. We're not that fun. A stall door squeaks open, Julie mutters that she's afraid. Kelly assures her that everything is fine, "Andrea's guarding the door." I am? Slowly the two contestants emerge, like dancers in a rundown strip bar for pedophiles. Still, there was a twinge of sexual energy in the air. Even though none of us knew what it was - it was. Julie and Lisa stand half naked in the middle of the bathroom. Kelly and Carolyn hold , fondle and jiggle each girl's breasts. I am so caught up in this underworld of carnal knowledge that for a second I forget all about Frankie. We're eleven and there's not a lot to measure, but it's exciting none the less. Carolyn orders them into various poses, "Put your arms up," "Lean over," "Shake them." Kelly pulls out a popsicle stick to measure their breasts for length. I admire her preparation. Julie sees where this is going and pinches her nipples so they stand out more. Lisa, not to be overlooked, puts some cold water on hers to make them hard.
Finally, after many scientific and Lesbionic tests, Carolyn announces that she thinks Julie's the winner. Kelly disagrees, Lisa's boobs, per her stick, are longer. Carolyn says that I need to settle the score. "No!" I think but say nothing. I walk over to them, knowing that one of these girls will hate me forever and that if she ever writes a memoir she will paint me as a bitch. Carolyn pulls me on my knees so that I can see their tits better. The tile is cold and damp and I'm breathing hard. This is very, very bad. I feel at any moment I might become a prostitute or drug addict.
"Girls! What are you doing?!" Sister Margret screams at us from the doorway. "Get your clothes on this minute! We're going to the office!" Oh my god. All in one day, I get a boyfriend and I'm part of a sex scandal. Is this a venial or a mortal sin I wonder. If I die right now, will I go to purgatory or straight to hell?
We sit in the outer office as the principal, Sister Mary, interrogates Julie in her chambers. From the crying we can all tell that Julie's cracked. Kelly sits next to me and whispers "Don't say anything when you're called." I nod and think now is as good a time as any, so I whisper, "Hey... have you gotten a postcard from Frankie?" She's thrown by my question, "We're about to be expelled and you're asking about my mail?" "Well, did you get one or not?" I persist. "That just shows how stupid you are because you can't get letters from Australia. It's a whole other country and it has to go through their government to our government for security reasons. Which takes months and months, otherwise spies would write back and forth and trade all of their secrets." I consider this, "So, you didn't get a card?" She rolls her eyes, "I just told you it's impossible."
Sister Mary walks out of her office and announces that we're all suspended for the week. Carolyn looks pale, Lisa bursts into tears, Kelly looks comatose, and I am grinning. Frankie did love me after all. We'd be together as soon as he got back to school and I'd never let him go. This was the most romantic day of my life. "Wipe that smile off your face Andrea. You have nothing to smile about." Oh, but she was wrong. I did.
P.S. Lisa was eventually declared "the winner' and invited to join our little group. Frankie came back from Australia but never even spoke to me. And my boobs never did come in - but thanks to Dr. McQuire I'm finally a size C.