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This is the first part of a much longer piece loosely based on my life.
I was less than three feet tall. To further complicate matters, I was badly nearsighted, thereby rendering most human faces completely inaccessible. I learned to identify people by features closer to my eye line. My mother always had the faintest sliver of stomach peeking out from the bottom of her shirts. My father’s pants all had the same crooked horizontal crease at the knees from being folded and stuffed into overcrowded drawers. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Mohip – a name I’ll probably die without ever learning to spell properly – had an ever-present bruise on her left shin from attempting to cross her legs beneath her desk, something she attempted at least once a day. This was how I came to know adults, by the tears in their jeans and the freckle patterns on their stomachs. Adults were not mere humans; they were gargantuan beings of leather belts and sock-stuffed crotches. However, as far removed as I felt from them, children were by far more alien.
I was a social virgin on my first day of kindergarten. I had never gone to preschool or daycare or any other of the modern attempts to socialize young children. The only age-group contact I had was with my older sister, and that relationship was rocky at best. So when my mother, stomach silently playing peek-a-boo from the hem line of her pink blouse, shoved me into an over-crowded inner-city Chicago classroom, it was the largest number of children I’d ever seen in one place. To me, they were new, they were interesting, they were… disgusting. Hair alternately stuck up or out in directions that defied control; faces were unwashed and sticky with the remains of meals long forgotten; outgrown sweat pants barely touched the tops of pulled-up socks; t-shirts advertised cartoons unheard of in a house without cable TV; and every last sleeve featured a long white streak of dried snot, as if signifying membership in some sort of dried-snot gang, The Mucus Army.
Men in muddy shoes and women in tanned stockings pushed the Mucus Soldiers forward, echoing one another with mutters of “making friends” and “having fun.” A boy and a girl, white-knuckled hands clinging together for the illusion of safety, approached me at my mother’s side. She gave me a “helpful” nudge from the back that came close to landing me flat on my obsessively clean face. The boy, all wide eyes and plastic grin, was eager to speak.
“Hi!” he said, with a bit too much volume and far too much enthusiasm.
I muttered an unintelligible reply that may have been “Hello,” but just as well could have been “What’s that smell?”
The girl – very much the taller of the duo – wrinkled her nose as if understanding my concern for the strange odor following the boy. Holding her free hand out in front of her to illustrate, she informed me: “Hey, you’re really short.”
The boy giggled through the red jelly halo surrounding his mouth. Somewhere in the near distance a blurry round woman-shape let out an indignant “Jennie!” while the tan and grey man-shape next to her commanded “Young lady, behave yourself!”
The male half of the toddler twosome began jumping up and down, his face contorting as a scientist’s might when he deciphered relativity, or squirrel’s might as he was fed caffeine intravenously.
“Do you want to play,” he paused, for emphasis, then screamed as loud as he could “Candy Land?!”
At that moment, I understood. The Mucus Army had sent out recruiters, and I was being drafted. I spun my head around just in time to see my mother’s stomach line disappear out the classroom door. I took another look around the room at these creatures – these children, my generation. I was a part of them and they a part of me. I took one last look at my clean solid-blue sleeves and sighed. It was going to be a long 13 years.